Why this 2015 NASA study is beloved by climate change skeptics

The findings of the controversial study flew in the face of past research on ice gains in Antarctica.

Why this 2015 NASA study is beloved by climate change skeptics
NASA
  • A 2015 NASA study caused major controversy by claiming that Antarctica was gaining more ice than it was losing.
  • The study said that ice gains in East Antarctica were effectively canceling out ice losses in the western region of the continent.
  • Since 2015, multiple studies have shown that Antarctica is losing more ice than it's gaining, though the 2015 study remains a favorite of climate change doubters to this day.

Climate change skeptics don't usually cite NASA when trying to make a point. The space agency has, after all, been a leading voice in advancing climate change research and awareness, promoting the idea that at least 97 percent of climate scientists agree that recent global warming is due to human activity, and overseeing a host of missions designed to study the changing nature of the climate from space.

There is one exception, however. In 2015, a team of scientists led by Jay Zwally, a glaciologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, published a study in the Journal of Glaciology under the title 'Mass gains of the Antarctic ice sheet exceed losses'.

It was immediately and warmly embraced by climate change skeptics and deniers, and some in conservative media.

"Ooops! New NASA study: Antarctica isn't losing ice mass after all!" read one headline.

"MELTDOWN MYTH: Antarctic ice growing is just the first EVIDENCE global warming is NOT REAL" read another.

The study was, to them, a much-welcomed monkey wrench thrown into the gears of a liberal machine that wouldn't stop shouting about climate change and, specifically, the melting Arctic and Antarctic ice. It gave them license to roll their eyes at the so-called consensus they'd long doubted.

And they weren't entirely wrong. The 2015 study was a direct challenge to a consensus held by climate scientists—just not the one the skeptics hoped to shatter.

What did the study say?

NOAA Photo Library

In short, the study claimed that, yes, Antarctica is losing some ice, but it's simultaneously gaining more ice than it's losing, and scientists haven't realized this because they've been incorrectly measuring snow and ice across the massive continent.

Zwally and his team argued that Antarctica saw a major increase of snowfall starting about 10,000 years ago in East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica. As the snow fell, it compacted and thickened the continent's ice with each passing year. This thickening process continues to this day, the team said, and it's caused Antarctica to gain more ice than it lost to melting glaciers from 2003 to 2008.

Scientists generally agree that East Antarctica is gaining mass in the form of ice or snow. The question is how much, and in what form? It's on these points that Zwally's team strayed from the scientific consensus: They argued that the ice gains were much higher than previously thought, and that the gains came in the form of ice.

​Why the discrepancy?

NASA

To measure the changes, Zwally and his colleagues used NASA and European Space Agency satellites that fired lasers at specific spots on Antarctica's ice. Those beams would then reflect back to the satellites at slightly differing times, indicating the altitude of various points on the ice sheet. This process required calibrating the satellites by firing lasers at a flat "reference surface"; Zwally's team chose the still waters of the Southern Ocean.

But some scientists said this measuring method isn't exactly reliable. For one, those waters aren't always still, and they could've been covered in ice. Also, the 2015 study yielded results that flew in the face of past measurements made by another NASA tool, the GRACE satellites, which record the changing mass of ice based on differential tugs of gravity on the spacecraft as they pass over the planet.

Further, even if scientists accept the study's findings regarding altitude changes in the ice sheet, it's still unclear what's causing the rise: ice or snow? Zwally's team claimed it was ice, an assumption that necessarily meant their estimates for the continent's total ice gains were going to significantly higher, because ice is denser than snow. Again, this finding was disputed by subsequent research conducted with the GRACE satellites that found ice gains in East Antarctica during the study period to be three times smaller than the amount suggested by Zwally's team.

​The Zwally study didn't argue against the existence of climate change

Suffice it to say that recording precise measurements of ice changes in Antarctica is a difficult pursuit. But whether Zwally's study missed the mark is, in a way, irrelevant, because his team agrees with the broader scientific community on the main issue: Antarctica is melting due to rising temperatures.

Zwally said he hoped his study wouldn't detract from other research highlighting the scope and dangers of climate change.

"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," he told Scientific American.

He also seemed aware some people would weaponize the study for political purposes.

"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," he said. "It should not take away from the concern about climate warming."

Where does the scientific community stand on Antarctic ice loss?

Since 2015, the bulk of scientific research suggests that Antarctica is losing more ice than it's gaining. This research includes:

In December, NASA scientists described how increased snowfall helped to offset ice loss in East Antarctica, though the losses are still outpacing the gains. That's not to suggest that climate change isn't occurring, but rather the opposite: Warmer temperatures have enabled the atmosphere to retain more water, which has led to increased precipitation in Antarctica.

"Our findings don't mean that Antarctica is growing; it's still losing mass, even with the extra snowfall," said Brooke Medley, a glaciologist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study, which was published in Nature Climate Change on Dec. 10. "What it means, however, is that without these gains, we would have experienced even more sea level rise in the 20th century."

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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