US: Fact check: Tide gauge data, not photos, prove sea level rise at Statue of Liberty

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The claim: Photos prove status of sea level rise at Statue of Liberty

Some social media users are sharing a meme purportedly showing the status of sea level rise at the Statue of Liberty.

The meme features two photos. One shows a black and white photo of the Statue of Liberty labeled "Statue of Liberty 1900." The shoreline of Liberty Island, where the statue is located, is visible in the image.

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The second photo is in color and also shows the statue and the shoreline, but from a different angle. It is labeled "Statue of Liberty 2020."

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The water level appears to be similar in the two photos. However, because the images are shot from different perspectives, they cannot be easily compared.

"Lady Liberty wouldn't lie. Here's the proof about 'rising ocean levels'...," reads the caption of the meme in a July 12 Facebook post.

The post garnered nearly 1,500 interactions in four days.

But the pictures presented here don't prove anything about sea level change.  The waterline at the monument fluctuates daily due to tides, and there is no information provided about the tidal stage in either photo.

We do have accurate sea rise data at his location based on tide gauges and satellite images, however. Those show sea levels in the area have risen since 1900.

USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user who shared the post for comment.

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Photos cannot prove status of sea level rise due to tides

Sea levels around the Statue of Liberty have risen more than a foot since 1900, Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University, told USA TODAY.

However, that change is not obviously represented by the pictures in the meme for two reasons.

One reason is that, while tides in the area fluctuate significantly, no tidal stage information is provided with the pictures in the meme.

Therefore, "you cannot make inferences about average sea level changes from these photos without correcting for the tidal cycle – and other forms of variation," Kopp said in an email.

Because area tides fluctuate by five or more feet and sea levels have risen less than two feet, an average high tide in 1900 was still higher than an average low tide in the present day.

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"The human impact, of course, comes from the fact that sea level at a typical high tide in 2020 is 1.3 feet higher than in 1900," said Kopp.

The other reason the photos can't be used to assess sea level rise is the distance at which they were taken.

The pictures were taken so far away that it would be difficult to see the current degree of area sea level rise, even if tides were accounted for, NASA climate scientist Josh Willis told USA TODAY.

"Side-by-side pictures ... are pretty much useless for sea level rise," he said in an email.

However, tide gauges, which continuously measure water height over time, are a reliable way to determine the extent of long-term sea level rise in an area, he said.

"Satellites that can measure the precise changes in the ocean height" are another reliable tool, according to Sally Brown, a sea-level rise researcher and deputy head of the Department of Life and Environmental Sciences at Bournemouth University.

"Both (tide gauge and satellite) datasets show that sea levels are rising around the New York area," she told USA TODAY in an email.

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The black and white photo in the meme is from 1900, according to a Museum of the City of New York archive.

USA TODAY was not able to definitively date the color photo, but it appears to have been taken before 2020. It was published on Pixabay in 2016.

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Sea-level rise is driven by global warming-induced melting of ice sheets and glaciers//, as well as the physical expansion of warming seawater. The rise is accelerating, according to Willis.

"Sea level rise happens faster and faster every decade," he said. "We already see faster rise today and it's going to get faster still."

In 2014, the Statue of Liberty was named as one of 30 landmarks threatened by climate change by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The group is a nonprofit of scientists, policy experts and analysts who seek to use science to "solve our planet's most pressing problems," their website says.

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Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that photos prove the status of sea level rise at the Statue of Liberty. The photos in the meme can't be meaningfully compared because there is no information about tidal stage for either image. Tide gauges and satellites are reliable for measuring sea level rise over time, according to climate scientists. Area tide gauge data shows more than a foot of sea level rise since 1900.

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Our fact-check sources:

  • Josh Willis, July 18-19, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • Sally Brown, July 18, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • Robert Kopp, July 18-19, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • NASA Sea Level Change, accessed July 8, Thermal expansion
  • NASA Sea Level Change, accessed July 8, Ice melt
  • USA TODAY, Feb. 15, Rising waters: Climate change could push a century's worth of sea rise in US by 2050, report says
  • Museum of the City of New York, accessed July 18, Statue of Liberty
  • Pixabay, May 16, 2016, Statue of Liberty
  • NOAA Tides & Currents, accessed July 18, Relative Sea Level Trend 8518750 The Battery, New York
  • NOAA Tides & Currents, accessed July 18, Observed water levels, The Battery, NY
  • USA TODAY, May 20, 2014, National landmarks threatened by climate change
  • Union of Concerned Scientists, July 19, 2016, Protecting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from Rising Tides
  • NASA, Feb. 13, 2018, New study finds sea level rise accelerating
  • Sealevel.info, accessed July 19, Mean Sea Level at The Battery, NY, USA

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Tide gauge data, not photos, prove sea level rise at Statue of Liberty

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