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Himalayan Glaciers: Wrong Date, Right Message

Posted on 17 September 2010 by Nicholas Berini

The IPCC made an error about the Himalayan glaciers. Section 10.6.2 of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) states, “the likelihood of [the Himalayan Glaciers] disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” This statement did not come from peer-reviewed literature, nor did it meet the IPCC standards of evidence.

The error has raised some criticisms - both legitimate and illegitimate - about the the IPCC, the AR4, and climate science in general:

Did the IPCC respond to this error quickly and diligently? The answer here is unfortunately no. According to a review by the InterAcademy Council on the IPCC processes and procedures, the IPCC took more than a month to respond to the Himalayan Glacier error, and even then did not explicitly acknowledge the error or issue a retraction. To make matters worse, it has been documented that the IPCC had responded more quickly to other supposed errors in the report (Leake, 2010; Reuters, 2010). Though the IPCC has been recognized for its scientific contributions, there is certainly room for improvement in terms of communications.

Is the AR4 terribly flawed? It is important to note that this is one error in a roughly 3000 page technical document, an error percentage similar to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The 2035 claim was not included in the Technical Summary, the Summary for Policymakers, or the Synthesis Report.

Does this error show the IPCC has an ‘alarmist’ bias – a tendency to exaggerate the negative impacts of climate change? In fact, there are far more documented instances of the AR4 being too conservative, rather than too alarmist, on emissions scenarios, sea level rise, and Arctic sea-ice melt.

Does this in anyway undermine climate science in general? To claim this error undermines the basic conclusions of climate change is absurd. The error is part of Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, not Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis. Anthropogenic climate change is still supported by multiple lines of independent empirical evidence, and nearly every national and international scientific body.

So what does the peer-reviewed science say about the Himalayan Glaciers?

Many of the Himalayan Glaciers are retreating at an accelerating rate (Ren 2006) and roughly 500 million people depend on the melt water from these glaciers (Kehrwald 2008).

The IPCC made an unfortunate error in a very long technical document. Moreover, the response to this error was far from exemplary. Highlighting this error to undermine climate science, however, is a classic example of cherry picking – a dangerous game to play with 500 million livelihoods at stake.

This post is the Basic version (written by Nicholas Berini) of the skeptic argument "IPCC were wrong about Himalayan glaciers".

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Comments 1 to 23:

  1. Himalayan glaciers draining south into India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan are increasingly being utilized for hydropower. One key point is that for the southern facing main Himalayan Range of India-Nepal-Bhutan the wet season is also the melt season. The summer monsoon leads to most of the melting low on a glacier and the accumulation high on a glacier. thus, unlike other areas low flow is not during the summer melt season and meltwater is not as critical to streamflow. The retreat is ongoing and substantial for almost all of the glaciers outside the Karokoram Range.Zemu Glacier, Gangotri Glacier and Satonpanth Glacier for example both of which feed hydropower.
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  2. The issue of "500 million people" should perhaps be put off. It is confusing to conflate the Himalayas in the proper sense in the issue of the mistaken outlook of the glaciers on one hand, and the catchments of various rivers originating in the central Asian highlands including, but not limited to, the Himalayas, in the issue of vulnerable population, on the other hand.

    Also, if the broken link "Kehrwald 2008" refers to the paper of Kehrwald et al. 2008 in Geophysical Research Letters 35, L22503, the reference to the paper in this context is inappropriate. Kehrwald et al.'s expertise is in scientific estimates of mass balance of glaciers. Remarks about human population in its "implication" section were just drawn from the (questioned) Asian chapter of the IPCC AR4 WG2 (together with the mistaken outlook of the Himalayan glaciers), and also from the paper by Barnett et al. 2005 (Nature 438, 303-309) which was the main source of the information used by AR4 about the issue of population.

    The numbers in Barnett 2005 are often communicated as the numbers of people who depend on glacier melt water, but it is not. In one context, it is the number of people who depend on snowmelt water and glacier melt water together, and it is likely that snowmelt is more important in the majority. In another context (northwestern China), a large number is the total population of a region which has parts where glacier melt water is important.

    A much better estimate of the vulnerable population has been made by Immerzeel et al. 2010 Science 328, 1382-1385. I think that this paper should be cited instead of Kehlwald 2008 and Barnett 2005. But note that the target of this paper was 5 large river basins. It did not contain analyses of small inland river basins where glacier meltwater is likely to be crucial, though population is not as large there as in large river basins.
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  3. are retreating

    All you have to do is read the abstract of this and wonder about all this. It states ice loss was rapid in the 60s. It also states that precip rates are down. then it says summer temps are warmer. Question class. if you decrease ice mass in an area what would you expect the temperature to do? Yes it would go up. that is exactly why the most extreme temperature changes are seen on the margins of ice areas. It doesn't take a scientist to figure that out.
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  4. As mspelto said, most of glaciers to the south of the Himalayas accumulate snow in the summer monsoon season. But perhaps the word "summer" is ambiguous. In the tropical monsoon Asia, the maximum in the annual cycle of air temperature often occurs in the pre-monsoon season (April to May in India, still dry until the onset of monsoon rain in June). I think that glacier melt water takes the largest fraction of streamflow in the pre-monsoon season (though I do not have appropriate data ready to assert this). This is a story about the seasonal cycle and not about climate change.
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  5. The paper by Immerzeel (2010) was already discussed here in the article "Return to the Himalayas" on 29 June 2010 by Doug Bostrom. I wrote some comments about IPCC AR4 and Barnett (2005) there.

    Some earlier discussions about the paper by Barnett (2005) was made as comments to the blog article "The IPCC's 2035 prediction about Himalayan glaciers" posted on 21 January 2010.
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  6. How seriously should we argue with people who would pick a single event (cold winter, IPCC error etc.) to refute the undeniable(!) and observable warming and ocean acidification?
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  7. It might be worth pointing out that rhe mistake wasn't spotted by some steely-eyed skeptic auditor, but by one of the IPCC AR4 authors, J. Graham Cogley.

    List of AR4 authors

    J. Graham Cogley's view on the mistake:

    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. [p. 74]

    Cogley backs the IPCC AR4, despite this error.
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  8. "the likelihood of global warming disappearing by 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the earth keeps stabilising at the present rate".
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  9. Re: thingadonta (8)

    Got a source for your apparent quote?

    Or did you just make that up?

    The Yooper
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  10. Barry @7,

    You just beat me to it!

    There is now a version 4.1 of the same incredibly informative talk available here is to vers. 4.1, but I see that there is now a version 4.2 out.
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  11. So what is the correct (estimated date)? What is the correct (estimated) number of people affected by the loss of the glaciers?

    Are we fresh out of new science, to be going back over this very well-worked ground?
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  12. I think it's clear thingadonta is a "hit and run" troll. He barges it to post his half-baked anti-science drivel, then runs off, never responding to counter-arguments. Isn't this ground enough for bannination?
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  13. re #12
    The statement was made to show how stupid the glacier statement was.

    There is an interesting quote by Dr Lal, co ordinating author of the chapter, who desipuite knowing it was dubious, states

    "It related to several countries in this region and their water sources. We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action"

    Read more:

    To any normal thinking person, this mean exagerating for political purposes, a clear and admitted breach of IPCC prinicples.

    "IPCC reports should be neutral with respect to policy".

    Read more:

    I would like to use my dubious statement above, for political purposes. I am concerned about Asias energy supplies in the next few decades, and the rising threat to these from climate science, so I am going to leave it in my report to "impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action".

    Dr Lal should be releaved of duties and sent back to 1
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  14. ....that is sent back to 1st year science class.
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  15. "To any normal thinking person, this mean exagerating for political purposes, a clear and admitted breach of IPCC prinicples."

    1) Learn to type ("prinicples," "should be releaved of duties", etc). Reading your posts hurts my brain.

    2) Snark comments about the science and scientists are not what this site is about. Try WUWT instead.

    3) This is tempest in a tea pot, quit adding your own farts to the winds.

    4) Your attempt at satire failed miserably. I suggest you leave it to those with a talen for it.

    Your comment adds *nothing* to the scientific discussion, and neither does this one. So I'll ask you to please cease your hit-and-run, poorly-worded, scientifically-deficient posts, as this isn't an advocacy or debate site.

    Thanks, and have a nice day!
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  16. thingadonta #13

    A good way to have yourself not taken seriously in any discussion of climate change is to use the British Daily Mail as a primary source to justify your point of view. Example here.
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  17. Re: thingadonta (8, 13, 14)

    An example of making a positive contribution to this thread might have looked like this:
    "There was indeed an error in Section 10.6.2 of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) in that the attribution of the Himalayan Glaciers disappearing by the year 2035 was incorrect.

    However, a closer look into the tale reveals that the date cited, 2035, most likely crept into various reports from an original 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. J. Graham Cogley, of Trent University (Ontario), suggested that the 2035 figure in the second sentence of the WGII paragraph was apparently a typographic error, and should have instead read 2350.

    Summational source here."
    See? That wasn't so hard.

    Unless all you seek is to generate controversy and to waste others' time.

    Then carry on, my wayward son.

    The Yooper
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  18. When Lal countered that he never said what David Rose in The Daily Mail attributed to him, Rose's journalism was investigated, and it was found he was a serial abuser. Even Roger Pielke Jr, a 'skeptic', wrote to Rose asking him to correct the record.

    The headline for Rose's article on Murari Lal is, "Glacier scientist: I knew data hadn’t been verified."

    So the spin starts with the headline. Murari Lal is not a glaciologist.
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  19. Daniel @17,

    That was an awesome Kansas video that you linked to!

    Had Thingadonta actually read something useful like glacier backgrounder by Kargel rather than linking to spam from a UK tabloid paper, then he would know that the glaciers of the eastern Himalaya in particular are not doing well.

    The typo was an unfortunate mistake and should not have been made. It does not change the fact that "Total Himalayan mass balance is distinctly negative” (Kargel et al. 2010).

    Anyhow, the issue had been addressed (ad nauseum) and it is time for everyone to move on.
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  20. A fairly detailed analysis of the 2035 typo is provided at the link below. It suggests that the typo was actually caught during the expert review stage but some kind of glitch occurred, perhaps due to multiple changes being requested, and the requested correction was either not applied or the original text was accidentally restored.

    Anatomy of IPCC’s Mistake on Himalayan Glaciers and Year 2035
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  21. #12 archiesteel

    Isn't this ground enough for bannination?

    Most other "skeptics" who post here have their blind spots, like all of us, but they do seem to make an effort to stay on the right side of the signal/noise ratio.

    Thingadonta, not so much. To put it very politely indeed.
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  22. SoundOff, if I recall correctly, there were some demands to include an estimate of this w/o the science being ready to answer as there was only one (Kotlyakov) paper present at the time that made this bold an extrapolation...
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  23. In the WG1 report of IPCC AR4, Chapter 4 "Observations: Changes in snow, ice and frozen ground" included a review of the state of glaciers (Cogley was a contributing author there), but not their future outlook. The global summary of future outlook of glaciers is included in Chapter 10 "Global climate projections", in particular section 10.6.3, in the context of sea level change. Glaciers were not discussed in Chapter 11 "Regional climate projections."
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