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Climate Sceptics And The Himalayan Glacier Melt

By Marianne de Nazareth

23 January, 2010

Conspiracy theories have always swished about over the issue of Climate Change. But now, Climate Change sceptics are having a field day with the so called ‘collapse’ of the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009. It all began a few weeks before COP15 when an exchange of emails by scientists form the East Anglia Climate Research Unit were hacked into and were cited as a huge cover up.

Then Copenhagen ended with a politically binding agreement, rather than any strong legal agreement, which has added fuel to fire. Now a huge furore has erupted over whether the Himalayan glaciers are melting or not.

The problem causing the controversy lies in the 2007 UN’s IPCC report which used the interview with Professor Syed Hasnain in 1999 by the WWF which was published in New Scientist, in the UK, as the source of its claim. This was not peer reviewed science and should not have been included in the IPCC report. The IPCC and a committee of 2500 of the best climate change scientists in the world, has accepted the egg on its face that, in its fourth assessment its assertion that the Himalayan glaciers will be lost by 2035 is incorrect.

However that does not take away from the fact that the glaciers are melting. In the month of August 2009, I was invited for the Third Pole media workshop in Kathmandu, co-ordinated by Chinadialogue, Internews Europe and Earth Journalism Network. There we were spoken to by Syed Iqbal Hasnain one of India’s foremost glaciologists from TERI who is now at the heart of the controversy. Hasnain’s presentations were photographic evidence of what he had collated over the years.

In his rebuttal on the present controversy sent to the media, Hasnain says, “ First and foremost, I assert that I am a scientist, with years of painstaking study, collation and analyses of field experience who relies more on facts and figures and not an astrologer who may give any date on the demise of glaciers. To reiterate, I have not given any date or year on the likely disappearance of Himalayan glaciers, neither in any interview nor in any of my publications in various journals.

Whatever got published in New Scientist (‘Flooded Out’, 05 June 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.

The statement I gave on the basis of the results being found till then was: "All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating, and a scientific postulation was made that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear in the next 40-50 years at their present rate of decline.

Moreover, this postulation factually represented the findings based on research techniques and instruments available in 1980s and 1990s. Now, we have more sophisticated and accurate instruments and techniques, as compared to those 10 years back. So precision has increased and the new results are coming out.

I must stress that 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 Himalaya glaciers disappearing in “40-50 years.

It is now well established that climate change is being driven by long lived Green House Gases as well as short lived forcers like Black Carbon, and has its impact globally. However, the intensity of impact is governed regionally and locally. Micro-level climatic as well as topographical variations, like slope facies etc. have strong influence on local level impacts of global warming.

With reference to climate change and its impacts on Himalayan glaciers, can there be any doubt on the pathetic state of the Himalayan glaciers! This has been affirmed by the findings of research works, published in peer-reviewed journals after 1990s, as well as the present research work being carried out by me and my team. All these findings indicate towards the negative mass balance of the Himalayan glaciers studied, whether by remote sensing or field based monitoring techniques. Moreover, the analysis of data presented in the report released from the MoEF in November 2009, supports the alarming rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers.”

Further, ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) which we visited in Kathmandu, Nepal has this to say on the issue, “The debate on the rate of melting of the Himalayan glaciers has gained momentum in recent days. The debate has centred on the statement made in the IPCC AR4 Working Group II report that the Himalayan glaciers are retreating faster than in any other part of the world and at the present rate of retreat could disappear by the third decade of this millennium. This has culminated with the statement from the IPCC on 20 January 2010 retracting this one statement in AR4, but reiterating that the broader conclusion of the report is unaffected.

Many of the inferences regarding glacial melting are based on terminus fluctuation or changes in glacial area, neither of which provides precise information on ice mass or volume change. Measurements of glacial mass balance would provide direct and immediate evidence of glacier volume increase or decrease with annual resolution. But there are still no systematic measurements of glacial mass balance in the region although there are promising signs that this is changing. China is the only country in the region which has been conducting long-term mass balance studies of some glaciers and it has expressed the intention of extending these to more Himalayan glaciers in the near future. India has recently started to study several glaciers for regular mass balance measurements. Recognising the importance of mass-balance measurements, ICIMOD has been promoting mass balance measurements of benchmark glaciers in its member countries and has co-organised trainings to build capacity for this in the region.

ICIMOD has been drawing attention to the severe problems resulting from the lack of good scientific data and information for the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, especially but not only on glaciers. This severely limits the ability to understand present changes or predict future impacts, a prerequisite for good decision-making thus the Centre has been promoting development of baseline information related to environmental processes and their changes. In early 2002, ICIMOD initiated a regional inventory of glaciers and glacial lakes, based on desk research and analysis of maps, aerial photographs, and satellite images. Since then, partner institutions have continued this work and developed inventories at national scales. ICIMOD is now focusing on assimilating existing information and national data and developing a regional database so that a regional monitoring system on the status of cryospheric elements like snow and glaciers can be put in place. Standardisation of methodologies has been given due emphasis to facilitate integration of the database.

At present, ICIMOD is conducting research on critical glacial lakes and is promoting the organisation of mass balance measurements in the region. Based on the analyses we have been doing, we can state that the majority of glaciers in the region are in a general condition of retreat, although with some regional differences; that small glaciers below 5000 m above sea level will probably disappear by the end of the century, whereas larger glaciers well above this level will still exist but be smaller; and that de-glaciation could have serious impacts on the hydrological regime of the downstream river basins.

Further, it is important to compare and summarise observations from a number of glaciers in different areas, of different size, and at different altitudes to draw clear scientifically justified conclusions about the changes that are occurring.

Although the lack of information and knowledge about the glacier melt processes in the Himalayas has been used to politicise the larger issues, the positive aspect of the debate has been the immense awareness created at various levels including politicians, decision makers, the media, and the public at large, which has led to some positive outcomes in recent months. In this context, the Indian Government has taken a decision to establish a specialised glacier research centre. Similarly, the concept of the Third Pole Environment initiated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences will have a positive impact on minimising the gaps in our basic understanding.”

Of course this does not let the IPCC off the hook. This is a body of scientists the world looks up to and therefore should have had a series of checks and balances in place before publishing the 2007 UN’s IPCC report.

Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC has this to say on the issue, "The credibility of the IPCC depends on the thoroughness with which its procedures are adhered to. The procedures have been violated in this case. That must not be allowed to happen again because the credibility of climate change policy can only be based on credible science. Nobody is denying that the Himalayan glaciers are disappearing fast as a result of climate change. What is happening now is comparable with the Titanic sinking more slowly than expected. But that does not alter the inevitable consequences, unless rigorous action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is taken".

(The writer is a media fellow with the UNFCCC and teaches Environment Journalism in St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.)




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