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Friday, January 22, 2010

"Glacier-Gate" and Healthy Skepticism

The last report of the The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contained the claim that there was a probability that the glaciers in the Himalayas would melt by 2035.  It now appears that such a claim never should have been made.  It is instructive to review the bidding to see how this claim appeared in the report.

The claim stated:

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).
First, I provide some background on the IPCC. Second, I discuss the source of this claim, and  third,  I  discuss what this error means. My conclusion is a discussion of healthy skepticism and what it means. Those who claim that the IPCC made an error and therefore climate science is a hoax, are not healthy skeptics of the sort I mean.


The IPCC describes its functions as follows:

The Intergovernmental Panel of [sic] Climate Change is the leading body for the assessment of climate change, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.

The IPCC is a scientific body. It reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change. It does not conduct any research nor does it monitor climate related data or parameters. Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC on a voluntary basis. Review is an essential part of the IPCC process, to ensure an objective and complete assessment of current information. Differing viewpoints existing within the scientific community are reflected in the IPCC reports.
The offending passage was published by Working Group II, whose function is:

The IPCC Working Group II (WG II) assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change, and options for adapting to it.  It also takes into consideration the inter-relationship between vulnerability, adaptation and sustainable development. The assessed information is considered by sectors (water resources; ecosystems; food & forests; coastal systems; industry; human health) and regions (Africa; Asia; Australia & New Zealand; Europe; Latin America; North America; Polar Regions; Small Islands).
 The World Wildlife Fund

As the claim made by working group II cites work by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that is perhaps the appropriate place to hunt down the claim. The  mission of the World Wildlife Fund is:

WWF's mission is the conservation of nature. Using the best available scientific knowledge and advancing that knowledge where we can, we work to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth and the health of ecological systems by
  • protecting natural areas and wild populations of plants and animals, including endangered species;
  • promoting sustainable approaches to the use of renewable natural resources; and
  • promoting more efficient use of resources and energy and the maximum reduction of pollution.
The WWF is an advocacy organization, however, part of its mission is to conduct scientific assessments.  It is not in itself problematic that the IPCC cited the WWF as a source, but the IPCC does have an obligation to ensure that the information cited is well-founded.  The information cited comes from a paper entitled An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China.  The executive summary, on page 2 of the report sates in part:
The New Scientist magazine carried the article “Flooded Out – Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities” in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming”.
 And on page 29, the report states:
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 of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high”. Direct observation of a select few snout positions out of the thousands of Himalayan glaciers indicate that they have been in a general state of decline over, at least, the past 150 years.
The prediction that “glaciers in the region will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming” and that the flow of Himalayan rivers will “eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages” (New Scientist 1999; 1999, 2003) is equally disturbing.
Having delved this far, it is immediately clear that the IPCC should have dug deeper.  They cited a WWF Report that in turn cites New Scientist and "a 1999, a report by the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology (WGHG) of the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI).  Why not look at the sources for the claim? It should be noted here that the 1999 WGHG Report does not contain the claim.  On the surface, the WWF seemingly based its claim on the New Scientist without checking the actual 1999 report, but there is more to the story.

The New Scientist

The New Scientist is essentially a news magazine that covers science.  It is not a peer-reviewed journal, but it should have a higher level of science reporting than a typical news source.   In a 1999 article, entitled Flooded Out, Fred Pearce writes:
"All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating," says Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the chief author of the ICSI report. A typical example is the Gangorti glacier at the head of the River Ganges, which is retreating at a rate of 30 metres per year. 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.
 Syed Hasnain

Syed Hasnain is quoted in the India's national newspaper,   The Hindu, as saying:

“Whatever got published in New Scientist [‘Flooded Out’ in 1999 by Fred Pearce] was a journalistic assumption interpolated by the interviewer over which I had no control. During the interview I presented the outcome of the findings on the basis of 20 years of my research till 1999.”
Quoting his statement, Professor Hasnain said, “All the glaciers in the middle of the Himalayas are retreating …. ” And a scientific postulation was made that all glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas “could disappear” in the next 40-50 years at their present rate of decline.  “A journalistic substitution of the year 2035 was made — without my knowledge and approval — that was markedly contrary to my research-supported finding of the likelihood of the central and eastern Himalayan glaciers disappearing in 40 to 50 years.”
Moreover, this postulation factually represented the findings based on research techniques and instruments available in 1980s and 1990s. Now, there were more sophisticated and accurate instruments and techniques than 10 years ago. So precision increased and new results were coming out, he said.
So according to Hasnain the research at the time was valid, but may no longer be valid.  Moreover, he provided a range of 40-50 years for a particular region of the Himalayas.  In fact, Hasnain's statement probably was not the original source of the claim, however.  It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze Hasnain's statements on glacier melt.

The Indian Environmental Portal

The New Scientist reported on the error in a story entitledClimate chief admits error over Himalayan glaciers. The story gives an account of the IPCC statement and summarizes some of the discussion that has taken place over the issue.  The article says in part:

This week Hasnain has claimed, for the first time, that he was misquoted by New Scientist in 1999.
New Scientist stands by its story and was not the only news outlet to publish Hasnain's claim.
In fact, the New Scientist is correct that The India Environmental Portal also reported the same language:

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.
More interestingly perhaps the article contains this language:
"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.
Note that the language of "500,000 to 100,000 square km" is provided here, but not in the intervening articles, which probably indicates that The India Environmental Portal was actually the original source of the claim.

V M Kotlyakov

The Indian Environmental portal misquoted an article edited by V M Kotlyakov Variations of Snow and Ice in the past and at present on a Global and Regional Scale that stated:

The degradation of the extrapolar glaciation of the Earth will be apparent in rising ocean level already by the year 2050, and there will be a drastic rise of the ocean thereafter caused by the deglaciation-derived runoff (see Table 11 ). This period will last from 200 to 300 years. 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. Glaciers will survive only in the mountains of inner Alaska, on some Arctic archipelagos, within Patagonian ice sheets, in the Karakoram Mountains, in the Himalayas, in some regions of Tibet and on the highest mountain peaks in the temperature latitudes.
Thus the glaciation shrinkage as a result of the “green house” effect will entail highly negative implications in geoecological terms. Changes in the structurally unstable ice sheets of the “marine” type may culminate in their catastrophic decay and, as a consequence, in a relatively rapid rise of the ocean Ievel (5 to 7 m in several decades). The mountain glaciation of temperate and subtropical regions, as well as the Arctic ice-cap island will, under such extreme regime conditions, develop an abruptly negative mass balance (-3 or even -5 m/year) and will practically disappear. Accordingly, the glacier-nourished runoff of rivers will drop dramatically, with the ensuing negative effects for the farm industry.
Note that the 500,000 figure refers to all of the extra-polar glaciers, not just the Himalayas, furthermore, note that the prediction is for 2350, not 2035.  Apparently, the India Environmental portal transposed the numbers and the IPCC followed suit.

According to the New Scientist in the aforementioned article:

Publicly available IPCC archives of the review process show that during the formal review, the Japanese government also questioned the 2035 claim. It commented: "This seems to be a very important statement. What is the confidence level/certainty?" Soon afterwards, a reference to the WWF report was added to the final draft. But the statement otherwise went unchanged.
I surmise that the original source was the article in the India Environmental Portal that misquoted the report of Kotlyakov.  When the Japanese delegation asked for a source, instead of providing the correct source, someone looked for the source of the claim and came up with the WWF article. The original source was not consulted.  Its conclusions are scary enough. The IPCC should have consulted the original research, quoted it correctly and sourced it reliably.


The WWF published the following  corrections:

On page 29 of the following report WWF included the following statement:

"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.'"
This statement was used in good faith but it is now clear that this was erroneous and should be disregarded. The essence of this quote is also used on page 3 in the Executive summary where it states: The New Scientist magazine carried the article "Flooded Out - Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities"  in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice's (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region "will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming".
This statement should also be disregarded as being unsound.  WWF regret any confusion this may have caused.
The IPCC published the following statement:

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 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.

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” . We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.
Healthy Skepticism

Does  this series of errors indicate that global warming is a hoax?  Certainly not.  In fact none of the errors that took place in this incident affect the fundamental science behind the evidence that the earth is warming because of anthropogenic emission of carbon dioxide.

Does this series of errors indicate that glaciers are not, in fact, melting because of global warming? On the contrary, the best evidence suggests that glaciers are in fact melting.

It does indicate that the IPCC reports are not perfect.  It does indicate that one should read derivative documents with a healthy degree of skepticism.  Although some of the science of global warming is difficult, the basics are accessible.  Most people can understand the basic science for themselves, if they take the time to look at it.  Healthy skepticism does not mean trying to poke holes in research that you do not understand.  It does not mean taking statements or evidence out of context to make a position look bad.

Healthy skepticism involves thinking for oneself and following the trail of evidence.  There is a tendency in a politicized environment to try to lead the evidence rather than follow it.  In leading the evidence one takes potshots at the evidence without actually trying to understand it.  A true skeptic keeps an open mind, but listens to what the evidence is saying.  Claiming that the Theory of Evolution is untrue because one does not wish to believe it, is not skepticism.   So it is with global warming.

Neither should a true skeptic take a claim that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035 at face value.  A true skeptic should dig deeper and ask what such a claim is based upon.  If the claim is based upon good science, one should be willing to accept it.  If the IPCC researchers had dug deeper, they would have found that the prediction was premature based upon the science.

The paper by V M Kotlyakov that suggests a drastic reduction in extrapolar glaciers is not the last word either. Research on this important topic is continuing and no doubt refinements and new discoveries will be made.  Science is always progressing.  This fact is not an excuse to dismiss the evidence as currently understood, however.  One must dig in and follow the evidence without leading it.

One of my goals in creating this blog is to try to make the science of global warming accessible.  I am currently working on A Primer on Infrared Spectroscopy and Global Warming because I think I can make some of that science more accessible to the average reader.



iramac77 said...
What do you make of this?

Rich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rich said...

The article you posted is not really relevant to this article, but see