A recent IPCC news release admitting a small instance of bad science has triggered a flurry of news stories and blog articles based on worse science. The IPCC error in question took figures, not from the scientist concerned, Professor Syed Iqbal Hasnain, but from media reports of what he is claimed to have claimed. Those media reports appear to have a common source: a 1999 New Scientist article by Fred Pearce.
An averagely educated reader of newspapers may well have come to believe that the Himalayan glaciers are not melting, that Prof. Hasnain is a bad scientist for saying otherwise and that the IPCC has retracted its stance that glacier melting demonstrates global warming. None of which is true.
IPCC statement on the melting of Himalayan glaciers1 - 20 January 2010, Geneva[my emphasis]
The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: “Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.”
This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.
It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938 page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment2 refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers.
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
“Whatever got published in New Scientist [‘Flooded Out’ in 1999 by Fred Pearce] was a journalistic assumption interpolatedby the interviewer over which I had no control. During the interview Ipresented the outcome of the findings on the basis of 20 years of my research till 1999.”Source: The Hindu
Quoting his statement, Professor Hasnain said, “All the glaciers in the middle of the Himalayas are retreating …. ” And a scientific postulation was made that all glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas “could disappear” in the next 40-50 years at their present rate of decline.“A journalistic substitution of the year 2035 was made ...
If one is to believe current reporting, the Himalayan glaciers are not melting. By implication: all glaciers in the region are reported to be not melting. That implied 'fact' is just plain old-fashioned hogwash. Note the IPCC statements: "Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout
the 21st century." "This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with
the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment." There is no copout clause, no clawback, no codicil, no proviso, no caveat: at no point does the IPCC withdraw anything other than the specific time-frame of glacier loss "by 2035".
Glaciers melt most, not at the sun-lit surface, but at the point where warm air comes into contact with the end of the glacier: the terminus. Warmer air triggers faster melting. Melting and regrowth at this point is called terminal retreat and advance. Retreat and advance can each be steady, or the glaciation can fluctuate between retreat and advance. A combination of direct observation and proxy data is available to show how glaciers have changed in history and in prehistory. From that data, we can determine glaciation trends. That trend, as confirmed by the IPCC on 20th Jan 2010, is towards accelerated glacier retreat. It is not being said that every glacier is retreating: but the average trend is one of retreat.
The Himalayan region is notable for having glaciers which are subject to fluctuation, retreat or advance depending on orientation, the strength of the Indian summer monsoon and the strength of the mid-latitude westerly winds. This makes short-term predictions of glacier terminus movements somewhat futile. Long term, however, there are clear patterns: climate change is real; the effects of global warming are real.
Climate change and glaciation: some disturbing reports
From the Alps to the Andes, the world's glaciers are retreating at an accelerated pace - despite the recent controversy over claims by the United Nations' body of experts, leading climate scientists said today.
Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University, said there is strong evidence from a variety of sources of significant melting of glaciers - from the area around Kilimanjaro in Africa to the Alps, the Andes, and the icefields of Antarctica because of a warming climate. Ice is also disappearing at a faster rate in recent decades, he said.
"It is not any single glacier," he said. "It is very clear that these glaciers are behaving in a similar fashion."
NEW DELHI: Amidst controversy over the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, a study by Srinagar-based University of Kashmir has raised alarm bells on the fast melting Kolahoi glacier, which feeds river Jehlum and other streams in the Indian-held Kashmir (IHK).
Undeterred by the controversy between the Indian government and UN sponsored Inter-governmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) on the issue, Professor Shail Ramsoo, a glaciologist at the geology department said IHK the Kashmir valley’s main glacier was melting faster than other Himalayan glaciers threatening water supplies not only to Kashmir but to Pakistan as well.
Imja Glacial Lake
Imja Glacial Lake shows (Dec 20091) a decreased expansion rate. Note: decreased expansion does not equate to a reduction in size - the lake is still growing.
It is a lake which should not exist. It is a lake which did not existSource: Sky News
just 50 years ago. Now it's so enormous it is a photographic challenge
for the Sky camera crew to capture it and somehow illustrate its
The Imja lake is by no means the only glacial lake either. It is just one of the biggest and one of the lakes identified by scientists as being most at risk of flooding as it swells every year.
There are at least another 20 in Nepal alone which are considered potentially dangerous.
The scientists now believe it is only a matter of time before the lake bursts, flooding the hundreds of villages further down the valley below.
Further reading / reference:
 Recent changes in Imja Glacial Lake
The Ngozumpa Glacier Project
The role of the Indian summer monsoon and the mid-latitude westerlies in Himalayan glaciation
An overview of glacial hazards in the Himalayas
Himalayan glacial sedimentary environments: a framework for reconstructing and dating the former extent of glaciers in high mountains
Maximum Temperature Trends in the Himalaya and Its Vicinity
Edit: added resources
United Nations Environment Programme - Global Glacier Changes: facts and figures
Guest commentary on realclimate.org, Jan 2009:
A global glacier index update by Mauri S. Pelto
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