IPCC relied on unvetted Himalaya melt figure

British newspapers have uncovered what appears to be an embarrassing fact-checking omission by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. It regards the degree of glacial melting in the Himalayas — information that said parts of the area could be icefree a quarter century from now.

IPCC cited this estimate in its Fourth Assessment Report on climate change in 2007. The dramatic figure’s source: a magazine writer’s phone interview with an Indian scientist — not data gleaned from the peer reviewed literature.

Relying on data that has not been vetted runs afoul of standard IPCC procedure. Here, the gaff resulted in the IPCC inflating the magnitude of glacial melting in the Himalayas, the new reports charge.

The IPCC melt exaggeration was covered in stories, Sunday, that appeared in the London Telegraph, Sunday Times, and Daily Mail. Each referred to a passage in the 2007 IPCC report’s chapter describing Himalayan glaciers (Section 10.6.2). The exact words in that report: “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.”

The ostensible source, according to the IPCC, was a 2005 publication by the World Wildlife Fund. In fact, WWF had picked up the 2035 figure from a New Scientist magazine article that was written back in 1999 by reporter Fred Pearce.

The Sunday Times quoted Pearce as saying that he had read comments on the glacial melt issue in an Indian publication that were attributed to Syed Hasnain at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Pearce phoned Hasnain and learned that this scientist thought parts of the Himalayas could be glacierfree by 2035 if current rates of warming continued. At the time, Pearce recalls, Hasnain said this assessment was due to be published soon. In fact, later checking showed it never was.

“Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was ‘speculation’ and was not supported by any formal research,” Jonathan Leak and Chris Hastings reported in the Sunday Times.

According to a Reuters news service story out of New Delhi, yesterday, IPCC is looking into the glacial exaggeration issue and “will take a position on it in the next two or three days.”

Agence France-Presse quoted IPCC chairman R.K. Pachauri today, speaking at an energy conference in Abu Dhabi, as saying: “Theoretically, let’s say we slipped up on one number, I don’t think it takes anything away from the overwhelming scientific evidence of what’s happening with the climate of this earth.” Pachauri added that “I’ve never used that [2035] figure in any of my talks, because I think it’s not for the IPCC to make predictions of outcomes or dates. We always give ranges, and that’s scientifically the way to do it. We always give … scenarios of what might happen.”

Unfortunately, this brouhaha over the 2035 figure distracts from the real issue, which is that Himalayan glaciers, like so many frozen water stores throughout much of the world, are melting quickly — and significantly.

It was something I discussed at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen with a water-resources specialist from Katmandu, Nepal. More on that in an upcoming blog.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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