• Tue
  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 1:33am

5 Antarctic facts for climate change sceptics

Five indisputable truths for sceptics who say that MV Akademik Shokalskiy's 'failed' mission disproves scientific theories on ice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 5:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 6:18am

To most people the prolonged stranding of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy in thick pack ice off the coast of Antarctica is an unfortunate incident that provided passengers with rather static scenery for their Christmas and New Year celebrations.

But to some climate change contrarians, repeated attempts to free the vessel from the ice are proof that the theory of climate change is flawed or, at best, exaggerated. After all, a warming planet has no ice at all, right?

In Sydney's Daily Telegraph, Roger Franklin dispensed with analysis of ice extent, the cyrosphere and the like to get to the heart of the matter - expedition leader Chris Turney is a "warmist" whose understanding of Antarctica amounts to little more than it gets "really, really cold".

The Australian newspaper darkly intoned that the stranding was a "hard lesson for those who persistently exaggerate the impact of global warming".

Helpfully, the newspaper said that researchers aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy have suffered an "embarrassing failure" in their mission, which apparently was not to follow in the footsteps of explorer Douglas Mawson and build on his scientific observations but to prove beyond doubt that climate change is real.

ABC science broadcaster Adam Spencer took to Twitter to lament that "you'd fail a year 8 science test if you presented the misunderstandings" contained in The Australian's editorial. To help clear up the confusion, here are some basic Antarctic facts.

1. It is large and cold

The Antarctic is an enormous frozen continent that covers about a fifth of the southern hemisphere. It is the driest, windiest continent on Earth, covered by ice that can reach 4 kilometres deep.

A new world record for a low temperature was set in December when a NASA satellite clocked a reading of minus 93.3 degrees Celsius on the east Antarctic plateau.

Surrounding the vast glacial, or land-based, ice is sea ice, which contracts and expands depending on the season. This is an important distinction, which we will get to shortly.

2. It is not the same as the Arctic

Essentially, the Antarctic is a continent of ice surrounded by cold water.

The Arctic is a semi-enclosed ocean, almost completely surrounded by land. Steadily warming land and sea temperatures have had a visible impact on the Arctic, with its extent reaching record lows in recent years.

The loss of ice in Antarctica does not appear to be as dramatic and it is even increasing in places, leading some to believe this means global warming is not occurring.

"When people talk about an increase in ice they are actually talking about sea ice, which is completely different from continental ice. Warmer oceans help melt the ice and make it thinner, which has been observed in the Arctic. In Antarctica it's more complicated. It is losing continental ice while sea ice has been increasing by about 1 per cent a decade," said Tony Press, chief executive of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre based at the University of Tasmania.

3. Climate change is having varying impacts

Studies have found Antarctica has lost about 100 billion tonnes of continental ice a year since 1993, causing the global sea level to rise by about 0.2mm a year.

The latest climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last year, said there was "high confidence" that the Antarctic ice sheet had been losing ice during the past two decades.

But this loss, caused by warming oceans, has been countered by an increase in ice in the Ross Sea region. This is the result of a range of factors, including climate change.

4. The ship did not get "frozen in"

Contrary to some of the more outlandish claims made by climate change deniers, the ship was not suddenly enveloped by ice due to rapidly plummeting temperatures.

It was pinned by ice from the Mertz glacier, a well-established ice formation.

"In the last few years the ice near where the ship is bogged has become less accessible," Press said. "This will eventually break up and move away, depending on wind patterns, storms, tidal activity and ambient temperatures. These are variable, local conditions."

5. Research takes time

The Australian Antarctic Division has been collecting data on ice flow, thickness and other such things in east Antarctica for more than 50 years.

Despite this, the organisation admits there are still gaps in scientific understanding of the Antarctic, mainly around the dynamics of ice sheets. This understanding will be improved by rigorous analysis of gathered evidence.

It's unlikely a single ship getting stuck in ice will cause a major deviation in researchers' findings.


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This article is now closed to comments

Some comments here seem unsure of what is 'science' saying about climate change.
The obvious place to look for the answer - the Science Academies
These are the bodies that in effect hold the world's science in their hands
If you disagree with them you need to provide good research-based evidence, not anecdote or refrence to fringe sources.
straight talk
Impressive title with totally unconvincing content. Where are the facts?
Have a closer look at alleged Fact 3. 'Climate change is having varying impacts.'
This claim concludes with, "But this loss, caused by warming oceans, has been countered by an increase in ice in the Ross Sea region. This is the result of a range of factors, including climate change." Come on, can't do any better than this?
This is the second group of climate scientists to get caught in the ice in the last year. These climate change scientists confidently tell us what happened thousands of years ago and what will most likely happen in 100 years time. With all their expertise you'd think they could foretell what's going to happen with tomorrow's weather? That would really be helpful, but they can't! If they can't keep their ships (and icebreakers) from getting caught in the ice today, perhaps they should 'chill out' and reconsider some of their long term prophecies.
Antarctic sea ice has increased by about 1% per decade since 1979, however this is not an indication that climate change isn't happening.
In Greenland, the mass loss increased from 137 Gt/yr in 2002–2003 to 286 Gt/yr in 2007–2009, i.e., an acceleration of −30 ± 11 Gt/yr2 in 2002–2009. In Antarctica the mass loss increased from 104 Gt/yr in 2002–2006 to 246 Gt/yr in 2006–2009, i.e., an acceleration of −26 ± 14 Gt/yr2 in 2002–2009.
Repeating talking points over and over again still won't make them become true. I have already refuted most if not all of your talking points in another article, but I'll post them again.
Antarctica has been losing ~70 gigatonnes of ice/year on average.
The Earth is still warming significantly.
A cold weather does not disprove a warming climate.
Finally, the Arctic isn't Antarctica, but the Arctic is also losing ice as well.
Please share your peer-reviewed information regarding the cooling in Antarctica and explain why the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing over 150 cubic km of ice each year. In addition, there are other explanations for the increase in sea ice: ****journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00139.1
Poorly researched comments Michael. Can I suggest you visit www.antarctica.ac.uk for details on the mission commenced on September 19 2013. The Science Briefing is exceptionally interesting.
Reduction in continental ice is directly proportionate to a reduction in salinity of the water next to the ice sheet, reducing the freezing point of the interface between ice and sea. During freeze thaw conditions it might increase the rate of ice growth during freeze and reduce during thaw. So it seems evident that a reduction in continental ice(through warming) may well as a consequence, temporarily increase sea ice.
Just a thought.
Can you come up with something more substantial than skepticalscience? A cartoonist's blog site seems to be your only information source. A link to this site is not of much use. Can you do any better?
The Arctic has been losing ice for a short time, though it bounced up a bit in 2013 - records only go back a bit over 30 years (sometimes call "ever")
I can refer you to research that shows that the Antarctic mass is increasing. Show me where the main data sets - Hadcrut, RSS, UAH etc all show warming over the past 17 years. How do you explain a submarine surfacing at the North Pole in 1958, or the Northwest Passage being discovered in 1903. You should be already aware of sources for this if you study the subject - if not let me know and I'll provide details.
I don't see a problem with using a website that contains references to journal articles people can read on their own time if they are genuinely interested in the topic. You seem determined to discredit a person's work just because they are a "cartoonist". On the other hand, you should provide references when you make a claim, so people don't have to do the searching for you.
For the Antarctic mass, Zwally's observation goes from 2003 to 2008, I would wait for the data set for 2008 to 2013 before making a claim that Antarctic ice is actually increasing.
Just so that you won't try to claim all of my sources come from "a cartoonist's blog", here's a paper showing long-term warming trends in GISS, NCDC, CRU, RSS and UAH data sets:
I don't see how you managed to link the 3-years old paper demonstrating a warming trend to "no warming in that period", unless you closed your window once you saw the paper was published in 2011. Also, an old paper is still better than a blog with no peer-reviewed research, which is highly hypocritical of you to use when you dismiss SkepticalScience as a valid reference.
Here's a 2013 peer-reviewed paper by Cowtan & Way demonstrating that there is a warming trend going on:
As for the USS Skate article (not peer-reviewed by the way), I would like to point out that finding open areas or thin ice for submarines to blow only demonstrates functional sonar equipments. A 160 km2-wide opening in the 10x10^6 km2 wide Arctic sea ice is negligible (0.0016%).
While the purpose of your article tries to demonstrate that the Arctic sea ice is variable, a 2010 study by Polyak et al showed that the current Arctic ice loss is abnormal.
And for your own sake, please do not try to dismiss the article for being "four years out of date" since yours was written back in 2009.



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