Fact check: NASA did not deny warming or say polar ice has increased since 1979

·7 min read

The claim: NASA 'admits' polar ice has increased since 1979 and denies significant warming over the last 18 years

NASA researchers have documented the loss of trillions of tons of ice from Earth's poles due to human-driven climate change.

However, a meme began circulating again in late 2021, claiming "NASA now admits polar ice has increased beyond its 1979 volume and there's been no significant warming in 18 years."

One example of the meme, originally posted on Facebook in October 2020 and circulating anew last month, has garnered hundreds of shares.

Although the meme's text implies a recent statement by NASA, USA TODAY found examples of the meme dating back to 2016.

USA TODAY could not find any evidence that NASA made the claimed statements. NASA data shows that Arctic sea ice and ice sheets at both poles have been steadily losing ice for decades and that warming has continued over the last 18 years. Antarctic sea ice has not exhibited a strong overall trend of gain or loss since 1979.

Special access for subscribers! Click here to sign up for our fact-check text chat

USA TODAY reached out to Facebook and Twitter users as well as a blogger who shared the meme for comment. The Reddit user could not be reached.

NASA says there has been significant warming over the last 18 years

NASA spokesperson Tylar Greene told USA TODAY in an email that she was not aware of any official statement to which the meme could be referring.

"Human-driven warming has continued over the past 18 years, which is evident not only in the surface instrumental record, but also in satellite temperature records, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, increased ocean heat content, and a number of other signs of a warming world," said Greene.

NASA global temperature data is publicly available on the organization's Vital Signs of the Planet website.

"Nineteen of the hottest years (on record) have occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998, which was helped by a very strong El Niño," according to the site.

Fact check: Human-generated CO2, not water vapor, drives climate change

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, also told USA TODAY significant warning trends have continued over the last 18 years.

"The years 2016 and 2020 were tied for the warmest year on record," he said in an email.

NASA says significant polar ice loss since 1979

The meme claims that polar ice volume has increased beyond its 1979 volume.

NASA does not include comprehensive polar ice volume data on the Vital Signs of the Planet website. However, other types of data on the site show significant ice loss at Earth’s poles since the late 1970s.

For instance, the Antarctica and Greenland land-based ice sheets have lost trillions of metric tons of ice since 2002, when NASA GRACE satellite monitoring began.

NASA researcher Eric Rignot told USA TODAY that between 1980-2019, the Antarctic ice sheet lost nearly 5.4 trillion metric tons of ice. Greenland lost more than 5.6 trillion metric tons during that same time frame.

These estimates are based on a combination of satellite data, physical models, weather data and field measurements.

Fact check: A 1912 article about burning coal and climate change is authentic

Though NASA ice researchers tend to report these losses in terms of mass, their results can be mathematically converted to volume losses. Volume scales with mass, assuming density is more or less constant.

Schmidt said "there is no doubt" there has been significant ice volume loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets since 1979.

NASA says Arctic sea ice declined since 1979

The NASA website also indicates that Arctic sea ice extent, or size, has declined steadily since 1979.

The graph on NASA’s site specifically shows data for the “minimum extent,” the time each year when Arctic sea ice reaches its smallest size after summer melting.

The last time Arctic sea ice minimum extent approached that of 1979 was in 2001, according to the graph.

Further, the yearly average extent in 1979 was more than 12 million km², whereas the average yearly extent for 2020 was just over 10 million km², according to Claire Parkinson, a senior climatologist at NASA.

The yearly average extent for 2021 was not yet available.

Fact check: Climate change theory compatible with laws of thermodynamics

While there are good satellite-based records for sea ice extents dating back to 1979, mass and volume estimates are less certain, Parkinson told USA TODAY in an email.

"However, from satellite altimetry data in the past 20 years and from submarine and in situ data from before then, it is reasonable to conclude that Arctic sea ice volume likely has decreased," she said.

NASA does not say Antarctic sea ice has increased beyond 1979 levels

While Arctic sea ice and both ice sheets have lost significant amounts of ice since the late 1970s, Antarctic sea ice has behaved differently.

“There had been a trend in the Antarctic toward increased sea ice coverage from the late 1970s to 2014, but with the decreases from 2014 to 2017, the record from the late 1970s until now does not show a strong overall trend,” said Parkinson.

Antarctic sea ice extent calculations for 2021 are incomplete, but the average yearly extent for 2020 was a little smaller than in 1979, according to Parkinson.

Even when Antarctic sea ice reached its recorded peak in 2014, it did not cancel out the losses from other ice masses. Overall polar ice losses continued.

"The information in this meme isn’t accurate," said Greene. "It’s contrary to the science that we have published openly and freely about polar ice, global temperatures, and how the planet is changing."

Fact check: Antarctica did not 'update' flag due to global warming

USA TODAY previously debunked false claims that polar ice reached record highs in 2021 and the Greenland ice sheet is gaining ice. In fact, Arctic sea ice and ice sheets at both poles are in decline.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that NASA "admits" polar ice has increased since 1979 and denies warming over the last 18 years. A NASA spokesperson denied any knowledge of such a statement. NASA data shows significant warming over the last 18 years and overall polar ice losses since 1979.

Our fact-check sources:

Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.

Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: NASA research supports climate change theory

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting