Himalaya Glaciers, IPCC and 2035

Over at Climate Audit, my new most favorite place for a good laugh, and head shake, McI has another post about the Himalaya 2035 IPCC AR4 mistake. One might think, given the coverage on his blog, that he’s … gloating?

No. Not the puzzle solver.

He’s just solving puzzles. Not speculating about motives or attacking climate scientists. No.

In his post, McI lays blame for the mistake at the feet of the IPCC chairperson. There’s speculation about how the mistake — the claim that the Himalaya glaciers would be gone by 2035 — has led to mucho dinero being wasted on this issue.

Here’s the quote:

On May 19, 2009, the European Union announced a $4.5 million (3 million euro) project to study retreat of Himalaya glaciers, with TERI being one of the institutions.

The EU has earmarked 3 million Euros (approximately INR 19.5 crores) for this 3 years project, bringing together leading research institutions in Europe: Netherlands, UK and Switzerland, and India: TERI, IIT-Delhi & Kharagpur. The participation of Japan in this project is adding an international dimension.

TERI also recently announced participation in a glacier program involving Iceland and Ohio State. Representing TERI in the project was Syed Hasnain … the source of the original 2035 claim. The Ohio State representatives were not named (Lonnie Thompson is the director of the Byrd Center.)

So, the claim is that a mistaken number (fraudulent someone says in the comments) was used in the IPCC AR4, which then led to funding for study of the non-issue.  One of the recipients — TERI — is a think tank which Pachauri heads.  Oh, the implication is clear.  No need even for a nudge nudge, wink wink. Say no more.  Note how McI manages to mention another nemesis — Lonnie Thompson.

Anyhoo, to the real issue.  What’s the deal with those Himalaya glaciers?  Is this all a lot of hot air about nothing?

Here’s a recent post at Bad Astronomy , one of my new favorite places:

From “Our Ice Is Disappearing”:

The IPCC report in 2007 was a landmark analysis of the current GW situation. It has been attacked repeatedly by denialists, of course. As it happens, in one part of the report they said that Himalayan glaciers may melt away completely by 2035. This turns out to have been based on a report that was not peer-reviewed, and most likely incorrect.

However, this does not mean the entire report is wrong, and it certainly doesn’t even mean that Himalayan glaciers are fine! Quite the opposite, in fact. A new study of Himalayan ice using satellite data shows that the ice is disappearing, and from 2003 to 2009 shrank at a rate of 47 billion tons per year. I’ll be careful to note that the uncertainty in this measurement is about 25% (12 Gt/year) and has a short baseline in time, but even considering that, the loss of Himalayan ice is definitely large and almost certainly increasing — perhaps twice as rapidly now as it was in the past 40 years before the study.

Here is the abstract from a recent (2007) paper on the Himalaya glacier retreat:

The Himalayas possess one of the largest resources of snow and ice, which act as a huge freshwater reservoir.  Monitoring the glaciers is important to assess the overall reservoir health. In this investigation, glacial retreat was estimated for 466 glaciers in Chenab, Parbati and Baspa basins from 1962. Expeditions to Chhota Shigri, Patsio and Samudra Tapu glaciers in Chenab basin, Parbati glacier in Parbati basin and Shaune Garang glacier in Baspa basin were organized to identify and map the glacial terminus. The investigation has shown an overall reduction in glacier area from 2077 sq. km in 1962 to 1628 sq. km at present, an overall deglaciation of 21%. However, the number of glaciers has increased due to fragmentation. Mean area of glacial extent has reduced from 1.4 to 0.32 sq. km between the 1962 and 2001. In addition, the number of glaciers with higher areal extent has reduced and lower areal extent has increased during the period. Small glaciarates and ice fields have shown extensive deglaciation. For example, 127 glaciarates and ice fields less than 1 sq. km have shown retreat of 38% from 1962, possibly due to small response time. This indicates that a combination of glacial fragmentation, higher retreat of small glaciers and climate change are influencing the sustainability of Himalayan glaciers.

Sure, this 2035-2350 mistake is obviously embarrassing in the sense it should have been found earlier, but hey, shit happens. Every document has some mistake in it — even ones that are vetted by layer after layer of people.

Still, the research I quoted above suggests that since the 1960s, the Himalaya glaciers and glaciarates and ice fields have retreated by between 21 – 38%.

That’s not insubstantial.  Considering that the meltwater from the Himalaya glaciers provides water for millions of people on the Indian subcontinent, the loss of the glaciers would seem to be a big issue, worthy of study, whether the loss happens in 2035 or 2135 or 2350. A 21 – 38% loss in 40+ years seems quite significant.

ETA: I should add in here that the monsoons are the chief source of water for India, as noted at Bad Astronomy, however, it is a symptom of a larger issue.

One might think that someone who was truly interested in the science instead of muckraking and general mudslinging would check to see if there was anything to this Himalaya glacier threat issue and whether the mistake, which might have been the result of a transposition of numbers, really was all that important to the greater issue.

One might think.  But one would be wrong. Because, in the end, what matters to the denialist crowd is not the substance of the debate but its appearance. The flaw, mistake, error, can be made to appear to be evidence of wrongdoing — that is what matters, not whether the flaw, mistake or error amounts to anything.

ETA: Below, I’ve quoted from the Kargel et. al. backgrounder to the fall AGU on black carbon and aerosols:

Summary of recent changes of Himalayan glaciers

Many glaciers  are rapidly retreating and in eastern Himalaya many glaciers will be much diminished in the next few decades, regardless of carbon emissions, aerosol emissions, and global warming trajectory.  These glaciers are already out of equilibrium with existing climate due to late 20thCentury emissions.  Further emissions increase disequilibrium.

Himalaya are so high that few hundred meters ELA1 change will not kill the glaciers, but will just establish new equilibrium lengths, areas, and AAR2; thus, retreating glaciers generally will leave shortened valley glacier and cirque glacier remnants. Glacier response times to climatic and other changes are mainly <100 yr (<1 year possible for basal sliding).

1 Equilibrium Line Altitude = elevation where accumulation and melting balance.

2Accumulation Area Ratio is a measure of glacier stability.

Some glaciers may undergo periods of comparative stabilization of length or even growth in mass.  Long-term overall trends across South Asia indicate glacier retreat. Some may simultaneously retreat at low elevation and thicken at high elevation as more precipitation falls due to (1) increased evaporation of the warming sea, (2) shifting convergence of Indian monsoon and Westerlies, and (3) the Elevated Heat Pump. The

EHP might shrink some glaciers, but might grow others in special topographic circumstances. Influences of deposited soot/dust also appear important in shrinking glaciers.  Too few observations of recent fluctuations constrain models of such a complex system, but the past 100 years suggests that the next 100 years will involve mainly retreat.

In case anyone out there is actually interested in the state of the glaciers, rather than the spin one can put on the IPCC mistake about 2035.

In response to some claims on the net that the lead author responsible for including the erroneous reference to 2035 included it knowing that it was wrong in order to push a political agenda, here is a blog post that refutes the claim.  Amazingly by actually asking the scientist in question whether he said that!

Climate Progress: UN Scientist refutes Daily Mail claim:

MEMO TO MEDIA:  Please start doing some damn journalism — like placing a simple phone call to a primary source.   A great many “newspapers” like the Daily Mail are no more reliable than the websites of the anti-science disinformers, like the thoroughly discredited ClimateDepot of Marc Morano.

In an exclusive interview  — “exclusive” in the sense that many of the people smearing Dr. Murari Lal haven’t bothered to ask him whether the original story was accurate — Dr. Lal asserts that the “most vilest allegations” in the Daily Mail story are utterly false.

It’s a veritable echo chamber of misinformation out there in the denialosphere.


About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

4 Responses to “Himalaya Glaciers, IPCC and 2035”

  1. The scientist behind the bogus claim in a Nobel Prize-winning UN report that Himalayan glaciers will have melted by 2035 last night admitted it was included purely to put political pressure on world leaders.

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1245636/Glacier-scientists-says-knew-data-verified.html#ixzz0dZi013Hu

    Do you still characterize it as a mistake?

    Also, it was found earlier. Earlier as in, before AR4 was published. Shit happens, indeed.

  2. Terry — I characterize the “2035” as a mistake — it is clear in the article that the number was the result of improper math that was not picked up until later and not properly corrected in the report.

    The IPCC has admitted the mistake, has admitted that it did not follow its own sound process, and has corrected it. It’s admittedly a very embarrassing episode. Scientists and governments did raise questions about it but the people responsible for actually changing the document — the lead authors — failed to do so.

    This is not in itself proof of scientific fraud. It may be evidence of bad judgement or sloppy work in the lead authors not following proper procedures.

    And finally, there is recent research published since AR4 that does show that Himalaya glaciers are retreating and have retreated due to global warming. I linked to two studies. This error in the AR4 does nothing to overturn this research. What it does is highlight the importance of following processes that are set up to prevent mistakes and questionable evidence from making it into the final report.

  3. The Himalayan glacier error is not the only IPCC error to become public recently. I understand there are four more errors, all in one paragraph, but none as serious the Himalayan glacier issue.

    The IPCC has lost a great deal of credibility over the CRU email leak and the publicity over these errors. I do not expect the IPCC to go away, but it is possible Pachauri will have to resign… or not.


    The way you know if the IPCC is powerful or not is the response at Copenhagen. There was no unified effort to stop global warming. Kyoto had a better chance of succeeding than Copenhagen did. Why? Because after all the years of study and all the money spent, there is more uncertainty about AGW being catastrophic than ever. The planet just isn’t warming as quickly as expected. The sea level is not rising as fast. Cyclones are not forming as fast or doing as much damage. Glaciers are not melting as fast. Science shows the glaciers that are melting are doing so because of land use changes locally and not because of CO2.

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