Meltdown Over Himalayan Glacier Melt

A funny thing happened on the way to the great Himalayan glacier meltdown. It turns out that that yes, the glaciers are receding at an alarming clip as a result of global warming, but reports of their demise by 2035 apparently were greatly exaggerated.

In an interview earlier this week with Agence France-Presse, a glaciologist who contributed to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) four-volume Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, described the mistake in the report as huge and said he had notified his colleagues of it in late 2006, months before its publication.

The controversy focuses on a brief reference in the second volume of the massive report that said the probability of glaciers in the Himalayas “disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high.”

The loss of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 would take two or three times the highest expected rate of global warming, explained Georg Kaser of the Geography Institute at Austria’s University of Innsbruck.

The 2035 date “is not just a little bit wrong, but far out of any order of magnitude,” Kaser told AFP. “It is as wrong as can be wrong. To get this outcome, you would have to increase the ablation [ice loss] by 20 fold. You would have to raise temperatures by at least 12 degrees” Celsius, or 21.6 degrees Fahrenheit. “It is so wrong that it is not even worth discussing.”

That statement has certainly spurred extensive discussion, anyway.

It touches a big nerve with India’s government. Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh also questioned the finding in the 2007 report.

The glaciers “are indeed receding and the rate is cause for great concern,” Ramesh told Reuters. However, he said the 2035 forecast was “not based on an iota of scientific evidence.”

A sheepish statement from IPCC Wednesday acknowledged a mistake was made but defended the report’s powerful core conclusion.

It quoted from the concluding document of the report, known as the Synthesis Report: “Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanization. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.”

IPCC said that conclusion is “robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.”

But addressing the controversy at hand, the panel continued that a paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment “refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”

IPCC says it regrets the “poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance.”

The Fourth Assessment Report said that the evidence for global warming was now “unequivocal,” that the chief source for it was human-made, and that there were already signs of climate change, of which glacial melt was one.

Kaser says the core evidence of the Fourth Assessment Report remains incontrovertible. “I am careful in saying this, because immediately people will again engage in IPCC bashing, which would be wrong,” he said.

It’s a huge embarrassment for IPCC that provides some fodder for desperate climate change naysayers. But to expect scientific perfection in measuring and assessing the new and unwieldy science of climate change is equally embarrassing.

By its very nature this is an inexact work in progress; IPCC has already started work on the preparation of the Fifth Assessment Report. Nitpickers and bashers, start your engines.

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