Greenland image misrepresented in Antarctic climate claim posts

Scientists say warming temperatures have led to changes in vegetation in the Antarctic, but an image circulating on social media alongside claims about the impact of climate change is not from that region. It is from Greenland and the flowers seen are not found in Antarctica.

"Flowers are now star(t)ing to bloom in Antarctica and experts say this is not good news. This would be the first evidence of accelerated ecosystem response in Antarctica that is directly associated as a consequence of global warming, according to Nicoletta Cannone, a professor of ecology at the University of Insubria," says a September 21, 2023 post on X -- formerly Twitter -- by the Daily Loud.

Similar claims circulated on Instagram and Facebook.

A screenshot of an X post taken on September 22, 2023

In its post, the Daily Loud, which describes itself as the "#1 Source For Hip-Hop / Viral News," refers to a 2022 study (archived here) by University of Insubria scientist Cannone.

AFP reached out to Cannone, who said the post "oversimplified" her research at the Italian university and that the term "flowers" did not accurately depict the subject of her work -- her findings focus on "vascular plants" (archived here).

The "strong air temperature warming" witnessed over the last 60 years in the Antarctic Peninsula region, and above the average global warming level, impacted the two native vascular plants in Antarctica, her report found.

"The plants of the picture do not occur in Antarctica," she said on September 25.

Arctic flora

A reverse image search helped identify the correct context of the photo, which was taken in Greenland, an island, which is part of Denmark.

A matching image can be found in the British stock photo library Alamy and predates the release of Cannone's study.

"Iceberg floating in the water off the coast of Greenland. Flowers on the shore. Nature and landscapes of Greenland" is the caption of the February 23, 2017 photo (archived here).

A screenshot of a landscape in Greenland taken on stock photo website Alamy on September 27, 2023 ( Manon JACOB)

Katrine Raundrup, a scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, also confirmed on September 27: "The species in the image are commonly found in Greenland."

Greenland is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean (archived here). The picture and Cannone's report therefore focus on geographic opposites.

Scientist Mikko Tiusanen, who specializes in environmental changes in plants and pollinators in the Arctic region told AFP on September 27 that the flowering species in the picture were likely Silene acaulis (archived here) and Saxifraga cespitosa (archived here), "both common in many areas of Northern Hemisphere but lacking in Antarctica."

Vegetation is seen pictured on August 14, 2019 on the island of Kulusuk (also spelled Qulusuk), in the Sermersooq municipality on the southeastern shore of Greenland ( AFP / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND)

Peter Convey, a terrestrial ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey, said on September 26: "Even in the much milder sub-Antarctic islands where there is much more vegetation, there are virtually no native insect-pollinated plants, so there are no colorful flowers with petals like that to attract insects."

He also said that while the native species are found to be expanding in population size and location, interpreted as a response to changes in the region's climate, they "were already in Antarctica, along the Antarctic Peninsula, so they were blooming already."

Although the social media posts mislead, both Greenland and Antarctica have been losing ice sheet mass -- with the highest loss rate observed during the 2010–2019 period -- and are projected to continue to do so in the future with hotter temperatures, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (archived here).

More of AFP's reporting on climate misinformation is available here.

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