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Himalayan glacier-tastrophe rumour melts away

Thermageddon postponed... again

By Andrew Orlowski, 19 Jan 2010

Climate stories are arriving thick and fast in the wake of Climategate, but the tale of the Himalayan glacier meltdown that never was must be one of the most strange and interesting of them all.

It's a tale that provides an insight into the "certainties" the political and media elites have come to depend on - and how badly the "scientists" have let them down.

In its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, the UN's climate change panel the IPCC reported that the Himalaya's glaciers might disappear completely by 2035. It made the prediction on this page, where it proudly stands intact today. The IPCC also noted that the Ganges basin is home to half a billion people, leading us to infer that the loss of the largest ice mass outside the Arctic would be catastrophic.

The Himalayas are home to 15,000 glaciers, many of which are a kilometre thick. Dramatising this disappearance would tax the producers of any disaster movie; yet this, we were told, could be a reality in our lifetimes, the IPCC reckoned. On current trends, four-fifths would melt.

Remember that the IPCC doesn't do research of its own - it is obliged to report the "state of the science" - meaning that the reports should err on the side of caution, and the panel is not supposed to make policy recommendations. That's the theory, anyway - the IPCC rarely misses the opportunity to tell us that "2,500 scientists" are involved in the process - and this process generates that elusive hallmark of Truthiness, a "scientific consensus".

What could possibly go wrong?

It now turns out the 2035 claim has no scientific basis at all - but was an off-the-cuff remark by an obscure Indian scientist who now disowns the prediction. It was made not in the scientific literature, but a telephone interview with a pro-warming journalist Fred Pearce of the New Scientist for a news item in the magazine in 1999. The IPCC picked up the spurious factoid after it was cited in a propaganda publication by eco-group the World Wildlife Fund. (WWF).

And now the IPCC editor responsible for the chapter sheepishly admits he doesn't know anything about glaciers.

"I am not an expert on glaciers.and I have not visited the region," says Murari Lal, "so I have to rely on credible published research". Which, you'll note, he failed to do.

I'm with Stupid

But his justification is intriguing. Note how observation and physical sciences had become secondary to the power of personal reputation - or more accurately, perceived reputation:

"The comments in the WWF report were made by a respected Indian scientist and it was reasonable to assume he knew what he was talking about," Lal said.

Lal may as well have said the Himalayan glaciers would disappear "because some bloke said so".

Many glacier experts rubbished the claim - even in warm times glaciers retreat by inches, yet the typical glacier is 300 feet thick. All 15,000 would need to melt in short order for the IPCC's prediction to come about.

Yet it has taken three years to debunk the claim - and it's six months since India's environment minister put the issue on the international agenda.

The geologists fight back

Indian scientists had already expressed their disquiet with exaggerated claims about glaciers. Drawing on 50 years of observation by the Indian Geological Survey and satellite images, the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests published a report with some startling observations.

Some glaciers had not budged - others had advanced. The report concluded:

"It is premature to make a statement that glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating abnormally because of the global warming. A glacier is affected by a range of physical features and a complex interplay of climatic factors. It is therefore unlikely that the snout movement of any glacier can be claimed to be a result of periodic climate variation until many centuries of observations become available. While glacier movements are primarily due to climate and snowfall, snout movements appear to be peculiar to each particular glacier".

You can download it here (pdf, 3.8MB). You can find another from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology here (pdf, 369kb).

(The IPCC Fourth Report also stated that "The receding and thinning of Himalayan glaciers can be attributed primarily to the global warming due to increase in anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases," in the way that the disappearance of children's teeth can be attributed primarily to the Tooth Fairy. The IPCC leaves no room for alternative explanations. The IPCC once promised to publish 'minority reports' on areas where scientists disagreed, but this promise was never fulfilled.)

One consequence is that independent nations are finding that they cannot rely on the IPCC's "science". This is the conclusion India and China have come to; they're joining forces to monitor the glaciers on both sides of the Himalayas.

Last week the New Scientist - the original outlet for this dodgy, unsubstantiated claim - made an early bid for the Best Use of Stable Door as a percussive instrument, 2010 Awards:

"We are entitled to an explanation, before rumour and doubt compound the damage to the image of climate science already inflicted by the leaked 'climategate' emails."

Boom, boom. ®

Andrew warmingly welcomes your Comments

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