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Fact Check-Statue of Liberty photos do not prove sea level rise is a myth

Social media users are sharing two photographs of the Statue of Liberty taken 100 years apart and wrongly saying the images prove that sea levels are not rising.

The tide causes wide fluctuations in the water level every day. It would be almost impossible to use two photographs taken at two random moments to illustrate an overall trend over time. Scientific studies that take tide data and other factors into account do show that sea levels have risen overall during that period in New York.

The social media posts show one black and white photograph of the statue dated 1920 above another image dated 2020. On the face of it, there appears to be no difference in the water level in the shots.

The text on the meme reads: “This is what catastrophic sea-level rise actually looks like.”

One account that shared the photographs on Nov. 2 said: “Look at the huge change in the last 100 years…oh…hang on…” (here). One user commented: “It almost looks like the water level hasn’t changed” (here). Another user who shared the meme said: “The big lie of ‘global warming’ .... [sic]” (here).

Examples of the meme on social media are viewable (here), (here), (here), (here).

The black and white image was taken in 1917 by photographer W. L. Drummond (here). Reuters did not find a source for the second photograph, which users online say was taken in 2020.

Experts told Reuters that two side-by-side photos did not in themselves prove anything, and the social media messages ignore the evidence.

Tide gauge measurements produced by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) at The Battery, New York, near the Statue of Liberty, from 1855 to today, show a trend of an approximate 2.9mm rise in sea level every year (here).

“This amount is small compared to the 5-foot range between low and high tide, so you would need carefully timed photos (at the same point in the tidal cycle, on a day when the tides were of comparable scale) for there to be a visual difference,” Robert Kopp, Professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Director of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub at Rutgers University, told Reuters via email.

“No one is calling the sea level rise experienced so far catastrophic, but global sea level rise has accelerated since about 1970 and will continue to accelerate until global temperatures are stabilized. Even under a very optimistic emissions scenario, we expect more sea level rise in the next century than the last one,” he added.

“If the point is that changes have been small, that’s true relative to the height of the Statue but meaningless because much of the City lies close to sea level. In several areas, flooding has now become a regular occurrence due to the high tide alone, not to mention storm surges,” Michael Oppenheimer, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University, told Reuters.

Dr Philip Orton, Associate Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change, agreed that it was misleading to compare two randomly timed photographs to gauge sea-level rise.

"The typical range of water levels in New York harbor through the year is about 2 meters (or using Imperial units, 6 feet), so one can compare a picture from high tide in 1920 to one at low tide in 2020 and it can be very misleading. Sea level rise is computed using monthly or annual averages to avoid this confusion,” he said (here).

“The (relative) sea level rise (SLR) in NYC (Battery tide gauge) is about 1.1 inches in every decade, or about a foot in a century,” Dr Klaus Hans Jacob, Special Research Scientist in Seismology, Geology and Tectonophysics at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Colombia Climate School, told Reuters (here).

“A photographic comparison between 2020 and 1920 is meaningless since the daily tides in New York harbor are several feet every day, and therefore are larger than the SLR for the last 100 years,” he added.

Sea level projections produced in 2019 by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) for the coming decades are viewable (here), (here).

A study released in May 2021 found that Hurricane Sandy - which hit the East Coast of the U.S. in 2012 and cost more than $60 billion in reported economic damage - was attributable to a sea level rise caused by anthropogenic climate change (here).

Liberty Island has been damaged by rising sea levels and flooding in the past, and is at risk of future flooding (here), (here), (here).

The number of disasters such as flooding and heatwaves which are driven by climate change has increased fivefold in the last 50 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) (here).

Reuters previously addressed a similar misleading claim based on two side-by-side images of Fort Denison, Sydney, Australia (here).

VERDICT

False. Two side-by-side images of the Statue of Liberty do not prove that sea level rise is a myth. Tide gauge measurements published by the NOAA show an approximate 2.9mm rise in sea level per year.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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