A claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 was not vetted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some scientists calling for reform
Compiled by Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The admission by a top group of international climate researchers that they erred in estimating how fast major glaciers in the Himalaya could melt as a result of global warming has added new fuel to the ideological battle over climate change science, but doesn’t change the fundamental science.
The statement by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change has been widely reported. Essentially, the group stated in 2007 that some of the major glaciers in the region could disappear as soon as 2035, leading to water shortages and other impacts in downstream regions.
Last week, the organization said that date was based on “poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession,” and that the panel regrets “the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance.”
This is the original language in the report:
“Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.”
The IPCC won a Nobel Peace Prize for its report that year (shared with Al Gore), but now critics are calling on its leaders to resign, and for the organization to overhaul itself. Some leading scientists said it’s a sign of systematic failure on the part of the panel to apply rigorous scientific review to its work.
Most glaciers in the Himalaya are hundreds of feet thick. The maximum documented rate of melting is two to three feet annually at most, so it would take several hundred years for the ice rivers to disappear at the current rate of melting.
But recent research shows that nearly all of the world’s glaciers are retreating at a rapid pace, and that the Himalayan region is warming at a much faster rate than many other parts of the world. Read more about global glacier monitoring here.
The IPCC promised to redouble its efforts to thoroughly review “the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report,” but that didn’t stop global warming skeptics from jumping on the mistake to try and challenge the credibility of other conclusions in the panel’s reports.
In an article in the UK’s Telegraph, some of the scientists involved with putting together the report discussed how the information was included, essentially saying that the offending paragraph was based on a short telephone interview with a researcher, without any peer-reviewed scientific research to support the claim.
Other researchers say the admission shows that climate researchers can police themselves, and that the public and the scientific community shouldn’t be blinded by a single error. They also pointed out that the 2007 report underplayed some of the other risks and impacts associated with global warming.
The UK Guardian published a reasoned article on “glaciergate,” pointing out that the burden of proof still lies with climate skeptics, who must prove that there is negligible danger from climate change.
Here’s an excerpt from the Guardian piece, directly addressing the challenges by global warming skeptics:
“Could their arguments withstand the same rigorous examination that took place during Glaciergate? The answer to these questions is a straightforward “no”. At no time have deniers ever put together a case – that inaction poses no threat to civilization – that could withstand proper scientific peer review.”
Here is the full statement from the IPCC on its mistake:
“The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: “Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. 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.”
This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.
It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938 page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment2 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.
The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of “the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report” 3. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.”