Whisper it quietly, but Antarctica ice is not making a comeback – because it never went away in the first place. Estimates of gains and losses vary in the scientific world, but NASA recently suggested the continent was losing 147 gigatons a year. Since there is an estimated 26,500,000 gigatons of ice lying about on the continent, this works out at an annual loss of 0.0005%. At the current ice melt it will all be gone in about 200,000 years. It might be argued that the current level of melting seems a tad on the slow side for a planet emerging from an ice age.
Obviously something must be done, instanter. On Radio 4 next week, the BBC’s green activist-in-residence Justin Rowlatt presents five short programmes updating us on the latest Armageddon climate scares. On Thursday, he will ask if Antarctic changes “will flood coastal cities for centuries to come”. What century, would seem a reasonable question to ask. In September 2021, Rowlatt reported that pre-pandemic he had flown over Antarctica and witnessed “an epic vision of shattered ice”. He continued: “It felt like I’d reached the frontline of climate change: a place where the equilibrium that has held our world in balance for thousands of years was slipping and crashing.” We are “overwhelming” the ice, he claimed. Of course a plug for the command-and-control Net Zero project is always at hand. “Needless to say,” continued Rowlatt, “this acceleration is a result of us humans polluting the air with greenhouse gases.”
As I noted recently, Reuters ran a story saying scientists had attributed the “disintegration” of an ice shelf to a period of “extreme heat”. It turned out the ‘heat’ was based largely on a computer model, and was gone within four days.
So back in the real world, what is actually happening in Antarctica? In October 2015, NASA reported that increases in Antarctica snow accumulation that began 10,000 years ago were currently adding enough ice to outweigh any losses. According to an analysis of its satellite data, there was a net gain of 112 gigatons of ice a year from 1992 to 2001, slowing to 83 gigatons to 2008. However in March last year, NASA seemed to change its approach and said that Antarctica had shed an “average” of 147 gigatons between 2002 and 2020. But as always in the geographical record, different parts of the vast continent show diverging patterns of gain and loss.
As we have previously reported, the Arctic ice record shows much wider variations. The recent small rise in temperature of about 1°C, as the planet emerged from a ‘little ice age’, has impacted the northern hemisphere more than the south, due to the presence of much larger land masses.
As we can see in the above graph, Antarctica remains a very cold place with little discernible trend in temperatures going back 60 years.
According to the satellite data from the University of Alabama, seen in our second graph, there has been no warming at the South Pole since at least 1978. Last year, mainstream media largely failed to report that the South Pole recorded its coldest six-month winter since records began in 1957. Reuters ‘fact checked’ social media commentary on this event and found it was “missing context”. A six-month period was “not long enough to validate a climate trend”, it said.
It might be thought that there is very little mileage in promoting climate Armageddon by using examples from Antarctica. But many of the scares revolve around the ice that forms in the sea around the continent. Due to different geographical circumstances, less ice survives in the summer in Antarctica than the Arctic, and over the last few years there has been more variability in cover.
According to the climate writer Michon Scott, Antarctica’s sea ice level since 2013 has exhibited the highest and lowest extents on record – highest-ever winter maximum in September 2014 and lowest-ever summer minimum in February 2022. A recent collation of scientific sources by the No Tricks Zone climate science site suggested that the short-term changes may have been due to natural processes. Overall, Scott notes, the long-term trend is nearly flat. “The satellite record spans over four decades, and although the ice has shown increasing and decreasing trends over portions of that record, few of those trends have been statistically significant,” he said.
That sea ice can be tricky. In 2013, the Australian climate change professor Chris Turney led an Antarctica expedition on the MV Akademik Shokalskiy to retrace a 1912 voyage and gauge the extent to which climate change had affected the continent. Turney had told journalists that he wanted to collect data that could be used to improve climate models. Two weeks later, the rescue call went out as the ship was trapped by thick ice.
A statement was subsequently posted: “We’re stuck in our own experiment.”
Chris Morrison is the Daily Sceptic’s Environment Editor