Fact Check: These Photos Do NOT Disprove Rising Sea Levels In New York Between 1898 And 2017

Fact Check

  • by: Kaiyah Clarke
Fact Check: These Photos Do NOT Disprove Rising Sea Levels In New York Between 1898 And 2017 Upwards Trend

Do the photos in a post that purportedly depict the Statue of Liberty in 1898 and 2017 prove that sea levels aren't rising? No, that's not true: Without detailed information about tides and sea conditions at the moment each photo was taken, the photo comparison has little value. An oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provided detailed continuous tide gauge data that show sea levels have been rising in New York Harbor since 1850.

The photos appeared in a post on Instagram on March 15, 2023. It featured the screenshot of a tweet with side-by-side photographs of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, with 1898 and 2017 written on the top of the photos. The caption opened:

@gretathunberg what do you think about this?

The text above the photos in the tweet screenshot reads:

This is what catastrophic sea level rise actually looks like.

This is what the post looked like on Instagram at the time of writing:

Statue of liberty: sea level rise image .png

(Source: Instagram screenshot taken on Thur Mar 23 17:35:39 2023 UTC)

The post makes the implied claim that sea levels have not risen significantly over a long period of time and thus that activists on global warming are either exaggerating its negative effects or spreading a myth.

NOAA oceanographer William Sweet confirmed that this claim is false in a March 23, 2023, email. He provided graphs (below) that show the sea level rising over a foot over a 170-year period at the Battery, a neighborhood at the southern tip of Manhattan about 1.7 miles from Liberty Island. He wrote:

Tide gauges are our unbiased sentinels along the coast, keeping watch on tide levels, storm surges and sea level rise alike. They have no agenda except to keep maritime traffic safe and help determine the extent that storm surges in the past have occurred to help in the preparedness of future storms.

The Battery, NY Graphic 1.png

When asked why differences that might appear trivial at first glance are, in fact, significant -- such as the misleading comparison between these two photos -- Sweet provided a graphic that highlights areas where high tide flooding has been increasing between 1920 and 2018 around the New York island. He explained:

Folks need to put the 1 foot of sea level rise in perspective of high tide flooding (see pictures of Jamaica Bay (here is one such link showing sunny day flooding: https://ny.curbed.com/2017/10/12/16462790/queens-climate-change-jamaica-bay-flooding-photos) near the JFK airport.

The rate of such sea level rise-driven changes in high tide flooding are 2-3 times greater than they were just 20 years ago are very consequential and very much not trivial: The land mass exposed to such flooding is significant and the flooding continues to grow more widespread, in depth and severity as the years go on (https://coast.noaa.gov/slr/#/layer/fld/5/-8295264.910351658/4971497.851332563/9/satellite/23/0.8/2050/interHigh/midAccretion).

High Tide Gauge Graphic.png

The photo labeled "1898" on the left side of the Instagram post was taken from the New York Historical Society Getty images webpage. The photo on the right side labeled "2017" was in reality photographed on April 27, 2012, according to this archived Getty images page.

The 2012 image also showed blue tarpaulins, wooden panels and green fences at the statue's base, as it had been under renovation since October 2011.

NASA's webpage on global climate change describes what causes global sea level variation:

Sea level rise is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, and the expansion of seawater as it warms.

As of August 19, 2022, NASA also provided an average estimate of around 4 inches in reference to how much the global sea level has risen since 1993.

Lead Stories previously debunked a similar claim showing photos of sea levels at Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour.

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  Kaiyah Clarke

Kaiyah Clarke is a fact-checker at Lead Stories. She is a graduate of Florida A&M University with a B.S. in Broadcast Journalism and is currently pursuing an M.S. in Journalism. When she is not fact-checking or researching counter-narratives in society, she is often found reading a book on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Read more about or contact Kaiyah Clarke

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