Fact check: Measuring cup meme misrepresents processes that cause sea-level rise

The claim: Measuring cup meme proves ice melt from global warming can't cause sea-level rise

Since 1993, average global sea levels have risen roughly four inches due to global climate change, according to NASA. However, a meme that suggests polar ice melt from climate change cannot cause sea-level rise has resurfaced on social media.

The meme shows two images side by side.

One image shows a measuring cup with water and ice in it. The ice is labeled "ice berg." The water is labeled "ocean."

The other image shows a measuring cup with water and no ice, with water at a similar level. The image is labeled "ice berg melts" (pointing to where the ice was in the other image) and "ocean level remains the same."

"A little science lesson for the #IDIOTS at the global warming conference," reads the meme text in a June 5 Facebook post.

The meme has spread on social media for years. A 2019 version was shared 3,700 times. Recent versions of the meme also received thousands of interactions on Twitter.

However, the meme is misleading and the claim it makes is false. It depicts a situation where the melting of ice that was already floating in the container failed to significantly change the water level. That's not what happens in the oceans.

Sea-level rise occurs when water from melting land-based ice sheets and glaciers pours into the ocean. This adds more water to the ocean than it previously contained, which raises sea levels.

Sea-level rise is also exacerbated by global warming itself because water expands as it heats up.

Neither of these processes – the loss of land-based ice or the thermal expansion of ocean water – is represented in the meme.

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USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the claim for comment.

Meme does not demonstrate processes that cause sea-level rise

The experiment depicted in the meme fails to demonstrate the processes that cause sea-level rise, according to Claire Parkinson, a NASA climatologist.

"It instead is showing something that doesn’t cause sea level rise – the melting of ice that was already floating in the ocean," such as sea ice, Parkinson told USA TODAY in an email.

Arctic sea ice – seawater that freezes and then floats on the ocean – is being lost to climate change, but the meltwater does not directly contribute to sea-level rise since it originated in the ocean.

"The main causes of sea-level rise is by the addition of land-based ice into the sea and the natural expansion of the ocean with warming," Sally Brown, a sea-level rise researcher and deputy head of the Department of Life and Environmental Sciences at Bournemouth University, told USA TODAY in an email.

Land-based ice includes mountain glaciers as well as the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets – which are losing hundreds of billions of tons of ice per year, according to NASA.

The other major contributor to sea-level rise, ocean expansion due to global warming, is "responsible for one-third to one-half of global sea-level rise," according to the NASA website.

Parkinson said the experiment depicted in the meme would have to be altered to accurately simulate the processes that contribute to sea-level rise.

"This could be done by either adding water or ice to the cup – simulating the addition of (glacial) meltwater," she said. It could also be accomplished by "heating the water so much that its expansion" raises the water level in the cup.

Fact check: NOAA charts show range of possible sea rise scenarios, don't conflict with observations

The meme was previously debunked by Reuters.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that a measuring cup meme proves ice melt from global warming can't cause sea level-rise. The experiment depicted in the meme does not simulate the processes that actually contribute to global sea-level rise – ocean expansion and the melting of land-based ice masses.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Measuring cup meme misrepresents causes of sea-level rise