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Fact Check-Arctic ice is not ‘making a comeback’, longer-term trends show

Claims circulating on social media saying that arctic sea ice is increasing and therefore climate change is not real present a misleading picture of the facts, experts consulted by Reuters said.

Website The Daily Sceptic published an article, which begins: “Whisper it quietly, Arctic ice is making a comeback” (here).

The article has been shared on social media, in a tweet with over four thousand likes (here) and on Facebook (here).

One commenter wrote: “This will be all over the news tonight and we will be told that we will no longer have to be taxed for a problem which doesn’t exist.” And on the Daily Sceptic site, one commenter wrote: “Love these posts Chris! Thanks to you and the DS for supplying them. Facts to fight off the fairy-tales are very useful.”

The Daily Sceptic article refers to official data from Copernicus, the EU’s climate science service (here).

The Daily Sceptic writes: “The [Arctic sea ice] coverage is now very close to the 1991-2020 average, well above a 2012 low point and higher than 2020. According to the latest report from Copernicus, the EU’s Earth observation programme, the 2021 March sea ice extent was just 3% below the 30-year average. March is the annual maximum extent of sea ice in the Arctic.”

In their overview of 2021 sea ice, the Copernicus authors summarize their data: “During the first five months of 2021, the daily Arctic sea ice extent remained below average but generally above all-time minima; a pattern similar to that seen in 2020 … At its annual maximum in March, the monthly average sea ice extent ranked eighth lowest for March in the 1979-2021 satellite data record, at 3% below the average for the 1991–2020 reference period. … At its annual minimum in September 2021, the monthly average sea ice extent was 8% below average, ranking 12th lowest in the satellite record. This was the highest minimum since 2014.”

Director of Research in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Exeter University Professor James Screen, told Reuters via email: “The claim that Arctic sea ice is ‘making a comeback’ is, as I suspect you know, complete rubbish.”

Screen said that while the Copernicus data appeared to be authentic, the Daily Sceptic article was “misreading short-term variability and the longer-term climate change response.”

More on short-term variability in long-term climate change can be found (here).

“We don’t expect that decline to be monotonic – there will be wiggles on the way… The long-term downward trajectory is clear. 2012 was an extreme year. That levels have recovered since then is not an indication of ‘recovery’ in the sense that climate change isn’t real or has stopped, but just reflects starting from a very low base,” Screen said.

He added that the two issues with the Daily Sceptic article are: “mixing ‘weather’ or short-term natural climate variability with human-caused climate change,” and then “cherry-picking the lowest year on record to compare against.”

Dan Jones, physical oceanographer at the University of Cambridge Centre for Climate Science, agreed. He told Reuters, “We do expect some year-to-year variations in Arctic sea ice. That’s not a surprise. And these variations don’t change the fact that we have seen a decrease in September sea ice extent of about 13% per decade since the start of the satellite era in 1979. The rapid decline of Arctic sea ice in recent decades is still a particularly strong indicator of climate change.”

Jones has covered the topic of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic in an article (here).

The Daily Sceptic article also discusses early 19th-century anecdotes of low sea ice in the Arctic, and cites data from records of sea ice in areas near the Arctic -- the Gulf of St Lawrence and Newfoundland in Canada -- suggesting low sea ice there during the same era. See (here).

Referring to a graph taken from the Canadian report, the Daily Sceptic writes, “Lighter amounts of ice seem to have been a feature since the 1930s, a process that started before the onset of mass industrialisation and increased use of fossil fuel.”

But Jones told Reuters: “As for the longer-term records shown in the article, there is no reason to think that the sea ice extent on the Scotian Shelf and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are representative of the entire Arctic. That’s a very small region compared to the entire Arctic.”

Finally, he said, “The decline in Arctic sea ice is one of the clearest signals of climate change that we have.”

A 2018 NASA study (here) found that sea ice extent is growing faster in winter months, but that growth is offset by warming and melting in the summer months.

Old ice is thicker, and over the past few decades Arctic sea ice has become thinner. The study found that Arctic sea ice extent is now half what it was in the 1980s.

It makes sense to measure sea ice in September, according to NASA, because this is when it is at its lowest, after the summer months (here).

As for the longer history of Arctic sea ice extent, a 2011 study published in Nature found that “both the duration and magnitude of the current decline in sea ice seem to be unprecedented for the past 1,450 years” and that ocean warming "seems to be the main factor driving the decline of sea ice extent" (here).

More information on the state of Arctic sea ice can be seen (nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/).

VERDICT

Misleading. An article selectively citing 2021 Artic sea ice levels as being higher than in 2012 contradicts longer-term evidence of sea-ice decline and is not proof that climate change is not happening.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts  here . 

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