Did a NASA Study Find Antarctica Was Gaining — Not Losing — Ice?

An October 2015 study on ice gains and losses in Antarctica was not the “smoking gun” climate deniers were seeking — and even the study’s lead author warned as much.

“I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” glaciologist Jay Zwally told Nature magazine after the study was published. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.”

Zwally worked for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center at the time of the study which found that between 1992 and 2001, the Antarctic ice sheet “showed a net gain” of 112 billion tons of ice per year; by comparison the same region gained 82 billion tons of ice a year from 2003 to 2008.

“If the losses of the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of West Antarctica continue to increase at the same rate they’ve been increasing for the last two decades, the losses will catch up with the long-term gain in East Antarctica in 20 or 30 years,” he said. “I don’t think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses.”

As Media Matters reported at the time, right-wing outlets seized on the work by Zwally and his team to claim that it justified their climate denialism:

  • American Thinker: “The Fraud Is Falling Apart.”
  • The Telegraph: Antarctic Ice Growing “Despite Fears Over Global Warming.”
  • Newsmax: “NASA Debunks Global Warming.”

“When our paper came out, I was very careful to emphasize that this is in no way contradictory to the findings of the IPCC report or conclusions that climate change is a serious problem that we need to do something about,” Zwally reaffirmed to Scientific American magazine in 2017.

However, further studies on the region have not matched Zwally’s findings; a 2017 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters by researchers at the University of Bristol concluded:

We are unable to reproduce the large magnitude trend obtained in Zwally et al. using the experiments presented in this paper. We conclude that irrespective of any assumption made about the density of surface elevation changes, mass gains in the [East Antarctic Ice Sheet] do not exceed mass losses for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet over the studied period.

In late 2021 a study presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union predicted that part of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could collapse within 5 to 10 years

“We are already on track for sea level rise in the next several decades that will impact coastal communities worldwide,” said that study’s lead researcher, glaciologist Erin Pettit from Oregon State University. “We can’t reverse this sea level rise, so we need to consider how to mitigate it and protect our coastal communities now.”

Update 1/18/2022, 5:20 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. -ag