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Climate panel’s glacier claims melting away

Climate panel’s glacier claims melting away
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First Published: Wed, Jan 20 2010. 01 15 AM IST

Facing flak: IPCC chairman R.K. Pachauri. Pankaj Nangia / Bloomberg
Facing flak: IPCC chairman R.K. Pachauri. Pankaj Nangia / Bloomberg
Updated: Wed, Feb 03 2010. 03 58 PM IST
New Delhi: The controversy over the findings of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, on Himalayan glaciers refuses to die with more errors, including what is possibly a glaring typographical one coming to light.
However, several scientists said IPCC’s entire report couldn’t be trashed on the basis of this, and that the panel’s review process remains transparent.
Still, separate parts of the panel’s report, which forms basis (or part of the basis) for talks between governments on climate change, bear an uncanny resemblance to a 10-year-old report published by Delhi-based activist group Centre for Science and Environment, or CSE, and a 1996 paper published by a Russian scientist.
The controversy began after a report in the Sunday Times said the IPCC’s statement on Himalayan glaciers vanishing by 2035, was scientifically baseless.
A draft of IPCC’s report, published in 2007 and circulated to governments across the world, says: “Its (Himalayan glaciers’) total area will shrink from the present 500,000 sq. km to 100,000 sq. km by the year 2035.”
Minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh has been critical of IPCC. “My problem was...with the alarmist position of the IPCC,” Ramesh said. “Secondly, the report made sweeping statements, which were not backed by scientific facts.”
Facing flak: IPCC chairman R.K. Pachauri. Pankaj Nangia / Bloomberg
Interestingly, a 1996 paper titled The Future of Glaciers Under the Expected Climate Warming, by Russian scientist V. M. Kotlyakov says: “The extrapolar glaciation of the Earth will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates— its total area will shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 km² (sq. km) by the year 2350.” Extrapolar refers to anything outside the polar region.
So, did the IPCC report lift this detail from Kotlyakov’s paper and make a typo with the year (2035 instead of 2350?). And did it make the mistake of representing data on all glaciers outside the polar region as data pertaining to Himalayan glaciers? IPCC chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri didn’t respond to text messages and emails seeking comment immediately.
“We are looking at the issue and will be able to comment on the report after examining the facts,” Bloomberg quoted Pachauri as saying in a phone interview. “The science doesn’t change. Glaciers are melting across the globe and those in the Himalayas are no different. We’re not changing anything till we make an assessment.”
Mint has reviewed the draft of the IPCC report, the CSE article that appeared in Down To Earth magazine, and the paper by the Russian scientist.
The disappearance of Himalayan glaciers, a near doomsday scenario that helped emphasize to Indians, the dangers of global warming, was a central point of contention between IPCC and the Indian government, which in a report dated 10 November claimed that the rate at which the glaciers were diminishing wasn’t alarming.
“Today, the glaciers that we have studied are 90% of what they were in the 60s,” said D.P. Dobhal, a glaciologist with the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Glaciology and a co-author of the government report debunking IPCC’s claims. “At that rate, the disappearance by 2035 is impossible.”
There are other incongruencies in numbers in the IPCC report.
In its introductory paragraph it says Himalayan glaciers cover about 3 million ha (which is the equivalent of 30,000 sq. km). It later says the area under glaciers could shrink from 500,000 sq. km to 100,000 sq. km by 2035.
The IPCC report says: “Himalayan glaciers cover about three million hectares or 17% of the mountain area compared to 2.2% in the Swiss Alps. They form the largest body of ice outside the polar caps and are the source of water for the innumerable rivers that flow across the Indo-Gangetic plains... About 15,000 Himalayan glaciers form a unique reservoir which supports perennial rivers such as the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra which, in turn, are the lifeline of millions of people in South Asian countries (Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh). The Gangetic basin alone is home to 500 million people, about 10% of the total human population in the region.”
This would appear to be a reproduction of the article in Down To Earth that says: “Himalayan glaciers cover about three million hectares or 17 per cent of the mountain area as compared to 2.2 per cent in the Swiss Alps. They form the largest body of ice outside the Polar caps. The 15,000-odd Himalayan glaciers form a unique reservoir which supports mighty perennial rivers such as the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra which, in turn, are the lifeline of millions of people. The Gangetic basin alone is home to 500 million people, about 10 per cent of the total human population.” The IPCC report does not attribute any information to CSE.
The similarity of part of the IPCC’s report with the Russian scientist’s paper was pointed out to Mint by Madhav L. Khandekar, a retired climate scientist and also an expert reviewer for the 2007 IPCC report.
Interestingly, IPCC’s report does not cite Kotlyakov’s 1996 paper, but it does cite a WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) report from 2005 on glaciers. The WWF report says, “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”, and attributes this to a 1999 article in New Scientist which, in turn, quotes a forthcoming paper that would shortly be presented by Syed Hasnain to the International Commission on Snow and Ice (ICSI). Hasnain at that time was with the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Even more interestingly, however, the 1999 paper, which was authored by Hasnain, also the chairman of the working group on Himalayan glaciology at ICSI at the time, does not mention anything about Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035.
Mint has reviewed the WWF report, the New Scientist article, and Hasnain’s paper.
“It (the specified part of IPCC’s report) can be a misreading of the Russian paper. I have felt very strongly that IPCC authors have not vigorously done their work. This glacier melt issue is an example of a sloppily written report,” said Khandekar, who also found fault with the agency’s review process, where reports are reviewed by other scientists with the intention of correcting mistakes. “I have been reviewing papers for past 20 years but with IPCC it was a one-sided process. It was very disappointing.”
Some other IPCC authors and reviewers, however feel that the review process for IPCC reports is adequate.
“There are several layers of review. First priority is peer reviewed literature. Typically they won’t consider magazines, even scientific magazines. Scientific American won’t count,” said Anand Patwardhan, who was a coordinating lead author with an IPCC working group in 2007 (but wasn’t associated with the report in question) and is now a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He explains that authors are required to look at multiple papers on one issue and cannot make statements based on a single isolated paper unless it is of huge significance.
J. Srinivasan, who chairs the Indian Institute of Science’s centre for atmospheric and oceanic science departments, said that he and several others in the science community always had their doubts on the “2035” figure. “It came to my notice two years ago, but once a document is out there’s no changing it.”
However he insisted that the IPCC review process is still extremely transparent and it was impossible for a couple of scientists to completely push wrong science into the report. “It’s a serious editing error and it should have been caught by the reviewers. I understand that a subsequent report of the IPCC on water resources does away with the mistake.” padmaparna.g@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jan 20 2010. 01 15 AM IST