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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher April 21, 2021

No, two photos don’t reveal sea levels, don’t prove climate change is a ‘hoax’

If Your Time is short

  • Water’s-edge photographs don’t show changes in sea level over time.

  • Global sea levels are rising and climate change is the primary reason.

A few days before Earth Day 2021, a meme spread across Facebook claiming to have proof that climate change is a hoax.

But a couple of water’s-edge photographs don’t prove anything, climatewise.

The meme’s sarcastic headline was: "99 years of sea level rise — Palm Beach Sydney." Palm Beach is a town north of Sydney, Australia. 

Below the headline were two photos, apparently of the same strip of land, with water on the left and the right. A black-and-white photo was labeled 1917 and a color photo was labeled 2016. 

"For years they called it Global Warming. But they were proven over and over that no such thing is happening," the text below the photos said. "Then they started calling it Climate Change. Again it is a hoax."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The post appears to argue that the photos indicate the water level at a particular site didn’t change in 99 years. 

Tides rise and fall, of course — even during the course of a day, as well over a period of years.

According to experts, photos like these don’t reveal long-term changes in sea level, and globally, sea levels are up, with climate change being the primary reason why.

A Google search indicates the two photos are from Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, which is about 17 miles north of Sydney. First Draft, a nonprofit that fights misinformation, told us the black-and-white photo appears to have been taken at Palm Beach and that an Australian government website dates the image as being taken between 1917 and 1946. First Draft could not confirm details about the other photo.

Featured Fact-check

Facebook users who clicked on the Palm Beach meme will see it has been marked with a fact-check that Climate Feedback did in 2019. It rated as inaccurate a similar meme with two photos claiming that "unprecedented climate change" had caused no rise in sea level at Sydney Harbour in 140 years. 

The fact-checkers found that two photos taken at different times cannot reveal whether a sea-level change has occurred, given that tides rise and fall. An expert from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California told Climate Feedback that during the 20th century, the sea level in Sydney rose by about 12 centimeters or just under 5 inches.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported in May that global warming is adding about 750 gigatonnes of water to the ocean each year. Solely for visualization purposes, that’s enough in one year to cover Texas more than 3 feet deep.

Satellite observations from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center reported in October an increase of 3.3 millimeters per year in sea level since 1993. Sea level rose more than 200 millimeters (nearly 8 inches) from 1900 to 2018, according to coastal tide gauge and satellite data.

"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," NASA said.

Sea-level rise is uneven in space and time but on average, sea level is rising because of climate warming caused by humans, said Thomas Frederikse, a postdoctoral fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The post is wrong and climate change is all too real."

Our ruling

A Facebook post says two water’s-edge photos, apparently from the same location, show climate change "is a hoax."

Water’s-edge photographs don’t show changes in sea level over time. Global sea levels are rising, and climate change is one reason.

We rate the post False.

UPDATE, April 23, 2021: This fact-check was updated to add comment from Thomas Frederikse. The addition does not change the rating.

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No, two photos don’t reveal sea levels, don’t prove climate change is a ‘hoax’

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