NASA’s announcement that the Antarctic ice shelf is actually growing, not shrinking, will surely put an end to the heated debate over global warming, right? Not so fast.

By now, we’ve grown accustomed to a steady stream of scientific doom and gloom: human-fueled climate change is causing the ice at the Earth’s poles to melt, which will then cause ocean levels around the world to rise, which will then submerge coastal cities, trigger massive storms and tidal waves, and kill everyone. Case closed.

Not so fast, lonely polar bear: a surprising NASA report seems to blow that theory wide open — apparently, the area covered by the Antarctic ice shelf is actually expanding to levels that are the highest in recorded history.

This news was predictably received with much rejoicing and choruses of self-congratulation amongst certain, prominent members of the political establishment and media. And yes, you know which ones.

Is Global Warming History?

Breitbart’s James Delingpole frames the discovery as conclusive scientific data that disproves climate change in its entirety, describing the story as “a major blow to climate alarmists.” He suggests that prior studies focusing on Antarctica were largely based on “guesswork,” ultimately boiling down to little more than leftist propaganda.

For Delingpole, even the NASA scientists who authored the report he cites are conspiracy theory-filled crackpots, lovingly embracing the idea that humans are endangering the planet by pumping pollutants into the environment. The logic here seems a little jumbled, especially when you try to imagine a room full of dedicated environmental advocates, devastated by the news that the Earth is not in immediate danger. Clearly, a huge bummer for all involved.

So yes, it’s unsurprising that multiple outlets are telling us that Breitbart’s righteous truth-telling is more than a bit misguided.

The Debate Heats Up


John Lester/flickr


In an unexpected turn of events, one of those outlets is FOX News — well, kind of. In a surprisingly measured approach to the story, writer Michael Casey cites the results of the study at length, then goes even further in consulting Elizabeth Thomas, a British Antarctic survey paleoclimatologist, who tells us that just because we see more ice in Antarctica now, that doesn’t mean that the long-term outlook is any better.

The article is free of conjecture and focused solely on facts — but it stops short of acknowledging the realities of climate change. Add the headline, which put the confounding initial results of the study clearly at odds with established climate change theory, and it seems that FOX News is willing to report the news and provide the facts, but not embrace an ideology counter to its usual narrative, instead calling on its audience to make their own judgments.

Straight to the Source

If the phenomenon profiled in the NASA study doesn’t prove or disprove climate change, how do we explain this inconsistency between the dueling narratives? Well, Smithsonian Mag enlisted the perspective of NASA glaciologist Jay Zwally — the same scientist who authored the study that kicked off this media frenzy.

According to Zwally, the declining rate at which the ice shelf is expanding is cause for concern in itself. The bulk of the growth cited in the study came from 1992 to 2001, when East Antarctica gained 112 billion tons of ice annually — but that number sharply dropped to 82 billion tons between 2003 and 2008. At the same time, other areas of the planet have been losing ice.

In a few decades, those losses will overtake the rate of growth, adding up to a global decline. Equally alarming is the fact that sea levels are rising and we can no longer blame that on the Antarctic, which means the melt is taking place elsewhere around the world.

The point of all this isn’t to bash the right-wing news outlets for the sake of bashing them — it’s to highlight the disparity of the coverage that a “controversial” issue receives in today’s political and media…climate.

Even when a report surfaces that is steeped in fact, the spin machine takes hold. Tellingly, when Fox News covered the topic in the most unaffected tone possible and allowed its preconceived narrative to steer the dialogue, the facts still don’t shine through. The truth, for many, is whatever the system says it is.

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(Main image credit: David Stanley/flickr)