The melting Himalaya glaciers controversy

In an amusing article at Maclean’s, “Credibility is what’s really melting,” Mark Steyn quotes the grief-stricken reaction of Berkeley professor Orville Schell to the predicted melting away of the Himalayan glaciers by the year 2035:

Take the Himalayan glaciers. They’re supposed to be entirely melted by 2035. The evidence is totally disproportionate, man. No wonder professor Orville Schell of Berkeley is so upset about it: “Lately, I’ve been studying the climate-change-induced melting of glaciers in the Greater Himalaya,” he wrote. “Understanding the cascading effects of the slow-motion downsizing of one of the planet’s most magnificent landforms has, to put it politely, left me dispirited.” I’ll say. Professor Schell continued: “If you focus on those Himalayan highlands, a deep sense of loss creeps over you—the kind that comes from contemplating the possible end of something once imagined as immovable, immutable, eternal.”

Poor chap. Still, you can’t blame him for being in the slough of despond. That magnificent landform is melting before his eyes like the illustration of the dripping ice cream cone that accompanied his eulogy for the fast vanishing glaciers. Everyone knows they’re gonna be gone in a generation. “The glaciers on the Himalayas are retreating,” said Lord Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank and author of the single most influential document on global warming. “We’re facing the risk of extreme runoff, with water running straight into the Bay of Bengal and taking a lot of topsoil with it. A few hundred square miles of the Himalayas are the source for all the major rivers of Asia—the Ganges, the Yellow River, the Yangtze—where three billion people live. That’s almost half the world’s population.” And NASA agrees, and so does the UN Environment Programme, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the World Wildlife Fund, and the respected magazine the New Scientist. The evidence is, like, way disproportionate.

[end of Steyn quote]

(By the way, Orville Schell is the older brother of Jonathan Schell, a one-time prophet of the end of the earth via nuclear war, and now, like his brother, a prophet of the end of the earth via climate warming, as I discussed the other day. Is there a gene for apocalypic despair?)

Steyn goes on to say that the evidence for the melting of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 came from a statement in the IPCC’s famous 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, now a subject of intense controversy. He quickly traces the glacier statement several steps back to a single, non-scientific source, and concludes that this entire “scientific” edifice that has Orveill Schell in such panic is based on nothing but a passing comment of zero scientific value.

To check out Steyn’s claim, I searched for ‘fourth assessment report,” and found Wikipedia’s article on it. Since the Wikipedia article traces the chain of sources in a manner very similar to Steyn, it is evidently the main source for Steyn’s column, though Steyn does not mention the Wikipedia article. (It seems he would rather have his readers believe that he’s been reading the primary and secondary literature on the subject, rather than reading Wikipedia. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

In any case, the article, “Criticism of the IPCC AR4,” has a section on the Himalayan glaciers, which backs up Steyn’s claim that the IPCC glacier prediction came from a non-scientific source. It is fascinating and I reproduce it below in its entirety:

Projected date of melting of Himalayan glaciers

A paragraph in the 938-page 2007 Working Group II report (WGII) included a projection that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. This projection was not included in the final summary for policymakers [9] which highlighted the importance of the glaciers for freshwater availability, and stated that “Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century”. Late in 2009, in the approach to the Copenhagen climate summit, the 2035 date was strongly questioned in India. On 19 January 2010 the IPCC acknowledged that the paragraph was incorrect, while reaffirming that the conclusion in the final summary was robust. They expressed regret for “the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance” and their vice-chairman Jean-Pascal van Ypersele said that the reviewing procedures would have to be tightened.[10][11]

The WGII report (“Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”), chapter 10, page 493,[12] includes this paragraph:

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) 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. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

WGII p. 493 [12]

At the start of December 2009 J. Graham Cogley of Trent University, Ontario, described the paragraph as wildly inaccurate.[13] The rates of recession of Himalayan glaciers were not exceptional, but their disappearance by 2035 would require a huge acceleration in rate. The first sentence of the IPCC WGII report, including the date of 2035, came from the cited source, “(WWF, 2005)”. This was a March 2005 World Wildlife Fund Nepal Program report,[14] page 29:

In 1999, a report by the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology (WGHG) of the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI) stated: “glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the livelihood [sic] of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high”.

WWF p. 29 [15]

On page 2, the WWF report cited an article in the 5 June 1999 issue of New Scientist which quoted Syed Hasnain, Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI), saying that most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming”.[15][16] That article was based on an email interview,[17] and says that “Hasnain’s four-year study indicates that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.”[18] Both the article and the WWF report referred to Hasnain’s unpublished 1999 ICSI study, Report on Himalayan Glaciology, which does not estimate a date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers.[14][19]

The second sentence of the questionable WGII paragraph which states “Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035” could not refer to the Himalayan glaciers, which cover about 33,000 km2. Cogley said that a bibliographic search indicated that it had been copied inaccurately from a 1996 International Hydrological Programme (IHP) report by Kotlyakov, published by UNESCO, which gave a rough estimate of shrinkage of the world’s total area of glaciers and ice caps by 2350.[13][20]

The extrapolar glaciation of the Earth will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates– its total area will shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 km² by the year 2350.

IHP p. 66 [21]

Cogley suggested that the “2035” figure in the second sentence of the WGII paragraph was apparently a typographic error. He concluded, “This was a bad error. It was a really bad paragraph, and poses a legitimate question about how to improve IPCC’s review process. It was not a conspiracy. The error does not compromise the IPCC Fourth Assessment, which for the most part was well reviewed and is highly accurate.”[14]

Statements very similar to those made in both sentences of the WGII paragraph appeared as two successive paragraphs in an April 1999 article in Down to Earth , published in the India Environment Portal (IEP). This included the substitution of 2035 for 2350 as stated in the IHP study.[22] New Scientist has drawn attention to Hasnain’s claim about the timing of glaciers disappearing:[23]

“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 is very high,” says the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI) in its recent study on Asian glaciers. “But if the Earth keeps getting warmer at the current rate, it might happen much sooner,” says Syed Iqbal Hasnain of the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Hasnain is also the chairperson of the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology (WGHG), constituted in 1995 by the ICSI.

“The glacier will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates. Its total area will shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 square km by the year 2035,” says former icsi president V M Kotlyakov in the report Variations of snow and ice in the past and present on a global and regional scale (see table: Receding rivers of ice ).


The question of whether it was acceptable to use material which had not been peer reviewed has been disputed.[17] IPCC rules permit the use of non-peer-reviewed material, subject to a procedure in which authors are to critically assess any source that they wish to include, and “each chapter team should review the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report.”[25]

The official statement issued by the IPCC on 20 January 2009 noted 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.” It emphasised that the paragraph did not affect the conclusion in the final summary for policymakers in the 2007 report, which it described as “robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment”, and reaffirmed a commitment to absolute adherence to the IPCC standards.[11][23] The IPCC also stated that it did not change the broad picture of man-made climate change.[11][10] This was confirmed by Wilfried Haeberli, who announced the latest annual results of the World Glacier Monitoring Service. He stated that the important trend of 10 years or so showed “an unbroken acceleration in melting” and on expected trends, many glaciers will disappear by mid century. Glaciers in lower mountain ranges were the most vulnerable, and while those in the Himalayas and Alaska could grow in the short term, in a realistic mid-range warming scenario they would not last many centuries.[26]

[end of Wikipedia section]

Steyn ends his article thus:

“Climate change” is not a story of climate change, which has been a fact of life throughout our planet’s history. It is a far more contemporary story about the corruption of science and “peer review” by hucksters, opportunists and global-government control-freaks. I can see what’s in it for Dr. Pachauri and professor Hasnain, and even for the lowly Environmental Correspondent enjoying a cozy sinecure at a time of newspaper cutbacks in everything from foreign bureaus to arts coverage.

But it’s hard to see what’s in it for Dan Gajewski of Ottawa and the millions of kindred spirits who’ve signed on to this racket and are determined to stick with it. Don’t be the last off a collapsing bandwagon. The scientific “consensus” is melting way faster than the glaciers.

- end of initial entry -

Jason R. writes:

I doubt that Steyn relies on Wikipedia for his information. There are several good AGW-sceptic portals out there, the best being which has been called the Drudge Report of the movement.

LA replies:

Sure, that’s possible. But when I found and read the Wikipedia article, I was struck by how its account of the chain of sources leading back up from the IPCC statement was similar to Steyn’s. Of course, the Wiki article could simply have been copied from the same article that Steyn had read. Either way, Steyn had not himself read those original sources, though, by not mentioning his own source (whatever it was), he was leaving the impression that he had.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 08, 2010 12:54 PM | Send

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