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A Mistake Over Himalayan Glaciers
Should Not Melt Our Priorities

By Bob Ward

22 January , 2010

Climate science has suffered another blow to its credibility after it was revealed that a claim by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that Himalayan glaciers will probably disappear altogether in the next 25 years was wrong. It is only a matter of time before the lobbyists who peddle climate change denial for their own political ends start to overstate the significance of this episode, and try to link it to the controversy surrounding the email messages hacked from the University of East Anglia.

The environmental organisation WWF has admitted that a report on the impacts of climate change on glaciers in India, China and Nepal, which it published in 2005, included an erroneous reference to a report by the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology of the International Commission for Snow and Ice, indicating that it stated "glaciers in the Himalayas 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". In fact, nothing like this quote appears in the cited document, and the magazine 'New Scientist' has reported that one of its articles from 1999 was the source.

The WWF has now issued a statement admitting that its report contained "erroneous information" and has apologised for causing confusion. Unfortunately, the error has been repeated by other authors and included in scientific papers. It was also referenced in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report in 2007: "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 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate."

What does this episode show? It is clear that WWF made a mistake which should have been picked up while its report was being prepared for publication. Subsequent authors should have checked the primary source and identified the error earlier. The IPCC in particular should have shown far more scepticism about the extraordinary suggestion that glaciers in the Himalayas, which currently cover more than 30,000 sq km, would probably disappear within three decades.

The first volume of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which reviewed the physical science basis for climate change, was much more cautious about the potential effects, noting only that "glaciers in the Asian high mountains have generally shrunk at varying rates". Perhaps the 2035 prediction would have been challenged sooner if it had been repeated in drafts of the more widely read Technical Summary, the Summary for Policymakers or the Synthesis Report, rather than appearing just once on page 493 of Chapter 10 (pdf) of the second lengthy volume on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

This is a regrettable mistake, revealing that there is room for improving the IPCC's review processes. But this does not change the strong evidence that many glaciers around the world, including in the Himalayas, are melting in response to the warming of the Earth. The likely fate of Himalayan glaciers is hugely important because they are the source for many major rivers in Asia. Yet the World Glacier Monitoring Service pointed out in a recent report that the Himalayas are "strongly underrepresented" among glacier measurements and records.

Let us hope that this controversy leads to more and better research on understanding how climate change is affecting the world's highest mountain range and what potential consequences there are for the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people who depend on them.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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