Why the Mail's claim that 'There is more ice at the South Pole than ever' only tells half the story
- 16 Oct 2012, 11:30
- Roz Pidcock
Based on mainstream media coverage from recent months, you'd be
forgiven for being a little confused about what's going on with
melting ice in the poles. Last week, the Daily Mail quoted
scientists saying that sea ice is at record high levels in the
Antarctic and calling the science of manmade climate change into
question. We take a look at how the Mail has, once again, cherry-picked
climate data to tell half of the story.
The Mail article explains, quite correctly, that the amount of ice
that floats on the water around Antarctica - known as sea ice - is
on the increase. The US National Snow
and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) confirmed that Antarctic sea ice
reached a record
extent - a measure of sea ice cover - of 19.44 million square
kilometres on 26 September this year. The graph below shows the
extent of sea ice this winter relative to the average between 1979
But the article neglects to mention that sea ice is only a small
part of the story in Antarctica. Most of the freshwater held in the
region is actually contained within an expanse of ice that covers
the land mass and extends into the surrounding ocean - known as the
Antarctic ice sheet. We explained more about the difference between
sea ice and ice sheets in a
blog last year after skeptic journalist Christopher Booker got
his facts very publicly wrong on the same topic.
The recent Mail article ignores the fact that just as scientists
found an increase in the amount of Antarctic sea ice, measurements
from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite
since 2002 have shown very clearly that the mass of the Antarctic
ice sheet - on land - is decreasing
Sea ice vs land ice
Contrary to the Mail's claim that "there's more ice at South Pole
than ever", this summer ice loss from the ice sheet dwarfs the
gradual increase in sea ice that occurred this winter. Overall,
satellite observations show that the Antarctic is losing ice mass,
as the graph below shows. The blue crosses are satellite
observations of ice mass, while the green line is the trend
calculated over the 17-year time period.
et al. (2009)
When the story was originally published on Thursday it was under
the headline '
Scientists find Antarctic ice has reached record HIGH levels: just
weeks after Arctic ocean hits new low'.
Not too terrible, but the headline is still misleading because it
ignores the distinction between land ice and sea ice.
But by Friday things had moved on and the same link led to a new
article, by the Mail's former environment correspondent David
under a new headline: 'Now there's more ice at South Pole than
ever (So much for global warming thawing Antarctica)'.
As well as being entirely misleading - there is not more ice than
ever at the South Pole - this headline echoes stories from some
skeptic outlets by suggesting the new record for Antarctic sea
ice proves climate models wrong. In fact, they do no such
Overall, climate models predict a loss of ice in Antarctica
over the next few decades, albeit at a slower rate than in the
Arctic. But scientists have known about the subtle increase in
Antarctic sea ice since satellite measurements began in 1979, so
this year's record has come as no particular surprise.
Poles Apart - Arctic vs Antarctic
The Mail article is also a little confusing about temperature
trends in the Antarctic. It says:
"While the rest of the world has been
getting warmer over the last 50 years, large parts of the Eastern
Antarctic have been getting cooler".
This may refer to the fact that scientists first thought that
Eastern Antarctica was so cold that it resisted ice melt. But
recent research shows that since 2006, it has been losing
mass along with western Antarctica.
The average atmospheric temperature over Antarctica has
risen by 0.5 degrees Celcius in the last 50 years. The Southern
Ocean that surrounds Antarctica has been warming faster than the
rest of the world's oceans, at a rate of
0.17 degrees Celsius between 1955 to 1995 compared to a global
average of 0.1 degrees. So the Antarctic is warming, not
The article says, quite correctly, that the maximum in Antarctic
sea ice comes hot on the heels of the NSIDC's announcement in
September that Arctic sea ice reached the lowest
extent since satellite records began in 1979, which we wrote
The article goes on to explain that unlike the Arctic, where
warming seawater leads directly to sea ice melt, the wind plays
more of a role in the Antarctic. Scientists say that ozone loss
above Antarctica - related to human activity - has led to a strengthening
of the winds that encircle the continent, increasing the area
that sea ice covers by pushing
it further out to sea.
Last week, a team of scientists produced the first
three-dimensional map of the underside of Antarctic sea ice,
made using a robot submarine. This will help scientists to better
understand how climate change may be affecting the thickness of sea
ice as well as the area it covers.
Giving the full picture
You don't have to wade through the scientific literature to get a
good idea of what is going on at the poles - there are some very
accessible internet resources to keep up to date with the latest
changes in polar ice cover. These include the excellent National
Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website, and Cryosphere
This context is important: it's only by considering sea and land
ice in both hemispheres can we get a full picture of how the planet
is responding to global warming. Picking one convenient fact and
ignoring everything else doesn't give an accurate picture.