U.S. research agency's data on Arctic Sea ice extent misinterpreted to deny climate change

By: Anurag Baruah
May 15 2024

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U.S. research agency's data on Arctic Sea ice extent misinterpreted to deny climate change

A Facebook post with the screenshot that misinterprets Arctic sea ice extent data to deny climate change. (Source: Screenshot/Facebook/Modified by Logically Facts)


The Verdict Misleading

Selectively chosen NSIDC data was used to claim climate change is not real. Data collected over the years shows Arctic Sea ice extent is declining.

Claim ID ffc545c9

What is the claim?

Multiple Facebook pages and users have posted a purported screenshot of an article titled "Arctic Sea Ice Soars to Highest Level for 21 Years," citing it as proof that climate change is not real. "It's a huge con, aimed at controlling humanity, stripping away our rights and freedoms. Ultimately comes from the same "people" who inflict endless misery on us. Those responsible for wars, and much more," one Facebook page wrote, sharing the viral screenshot. Archived versions of such posts can be viewed here and here

The first few lines of the said article, visible in the screenshot, claim that there has been a "dramatic, if largely unpublicised, recovery in Arctic sea ice" recently. The piece goes on to cite data from the U.S.-based National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) to back up their assertions, according to which the "Arctic sea ice on January 8th stood at its highest level in 21 years." 

However, the viral claim is misleading. Even though the quoted data is correct, comparing the sea extent (a measure of the surface area of the ocean covered by sea ice) of two days from two specific years is not an indicator for or against long-term changes. Data collected over the years shows that Arctic ice has been declining since satellite recording began in 1979. 

What did we find?

A reverse image search on the viral screenshot led us to the original article published on January 16 in The Daily Sceptic, (archived link here), a website known for publishing misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and climate change.

The article was also posted on The Daily Sceptic's Facebook page (archived here) on the same date with the caption, "The dramatic recovery in Arctic sea ice is continuing into the New Year, with it standing as of January 8th at its highest level in 21 years, defying the alarmist narrative", a reference to the discussion around climate change.

Screenshot of The Daily Sceptic article posted on Facebook. (Source: Screenshot/The Daily Sceptic/Modified by Logically Facts)

The article promotes climate change denial by using phrases like 'nearly non-existent warming' and 'contestable claims of the hottest year ever.' It also questions the Net-Zero policy and the reliability of computer simulations of the Earth's climate system or climate models, which are employed by scientists to make further predictions about the climate. 

The article claims that, according to NSIDC data, the Arctic Sea ice extent was slightly higher on January 8 than on the same date 20 years earlier. 

While The Daily Sceptic did use actual data from the NSIDC website, where the interactive graph on ice extent can be freely accessed, to make claims about the sea extent on January 8, it ignored several significant data points to make misleading claims. The Arctic sea ice extent for the entire month of January dropped compared to some other years, the data shows. According to NSIDC, "The Arctic sea ice extent for January 2024 ranked as the 20th-smallest in the satellite record at 13.92 million square kilometers (5.37 million square miles). This was 60,000 kilometers (30,000 square miles) below the 1991-2020 average."

Screenshot of the NSIDC graph: (Source: Screenshot/NSIDC)

In fact, comparing data on sea extent over the years demonstrates an alarming decline. According to NSIDC/NASA data, the Arctic Sea ice minimum extent (measured in September) was 7.54 million square kilometers in 1980, 6.04 million square kilometers in 1990, 5.98 million square kilometers in 2000, 4.62 million square kilometers in 2010, and 4.72 million square kilometers in 2020. The Arctic Sea ice minimum extent in 2023 stood at 4.37 million square kilometers.  National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) also noted that the Arctic sea ice minimum extent, also known as Summer Arctic sea ice extent, was shrinking by 12.2% per decade "due to warmer temperatures."

The viral Daily Sceptic article can thus be deemed misleading, given that it overlooks the fact that comparing just two days from two specific years is not an indicator for or against long-term changes. 

Furthermore, to ascertain the condition of Arctic sea ice before that, scientists have combined historical data and proxy measurements like marine sediment cores to conclude that the current decline in Arctic sea ice is unprecedented compared to several centuries before. 

What do experts say?

A senior research scientist from NSIDC, Walter Meier, told Logically Facts, "During winter and spring, there is a lot of variation in the ice cover due to weather. So, it isn't particularly surprising, nor meaningful, that the extent of a specific day or series of days this year is similar to another year, even a year a couple of decades ago. Comparing just a day (or a few days) from only two specific years is cherry-picking and is not a scientifically valid way to assess the long-term changes in the ice cover."

Meier further explained, "Over the long term, 1979-2024, there is a significant downward trend, but particularly during winter and spring, there is a lot of year-to-year variability in the ice because it is the start of the melt season, and the ice edge is subject to many changes due to ephemeral winds and air temperatures."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations' intergovernmental body, has stated with "very high confidence" that the "Arctic sea ice extent continues to decline in all months of the year." It also stated that "approximately half the observed sea ice loss is attributable to increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations."

Meier also explained that the ice discussed in The Daily Sceptic piece is the "sea ice extent," which "can melt or grow quickly and/or get pushed around by the winds." He added, "It doesn't say anything about the overall thickness of the ice cover."

"The winter and spring extent is not a good predictor of the summer minimum. The better indicator of the Arctic sea ice cover is the extent at the end of summer when it reaches its annual minimum because only the thicker ice survives. There, we see very significant, strong downward trends," Meier told Logically Facts.  

The verdict

While the quoted numbers in the viral screenshot of The Daily Sceptic article are correct,  comparing just two days from two specific years cannot be an indicator for or against long-term changes. Data collected over decades shows that the Arctic sea ice extent has been declining. Therefore, we have marked the claim as misleading. 

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