Of Morons and Moraines

January 20, 2010

Apparently glacial retreat has been kicking up a fuss amongst the climate sceptic community. The IPCC has admitted that it made a mistake in including a prediction that Himalayan glaciers could be gone by 2035 in its Fourth Assessment Report, having sourced an unsubstantiated claim from the World Wildlife Fund without checking with the scientist who originated it, in an interview with the New Scientist.

The best that we can tell from glaciologists is that such an eventually is extremely unlikely, although glacial retreat in the Himalayas is ongoing and, in some cases, alarming. It is likely that within a century river flows in south Asia will have been affected by the loss of glacial water even if the earlier date is a canard.

The more moronic fringe of UK papers have predictably latched onto this factual mistake as a “climate change scandal” – which it isn’t. Numerous members of the IPCC process noticed the mistake before publication, alerted the Asian impacts working group, which failed to respond in time, leaving the glacier case study as a rare clanger in what was a massive and generally impeccable publication. Just read the physical science section of the Fourth Report for accurate and fascinating background on glaciers and climate change, with no bold predictions.

In response, the Guardian’s Isabel Hilton has suggested that the “real scandal” is that science has neglected the Himalayas for so long, despite the obvious importance of the water stored in their glaciers for life in Asia. This is partly due to the enormous problems associated with studying the region. As Hilton writes:

There are tens of thousands of glaciers that are difficult and expensive to get to. They are scattered across three major weather systems and countless microclimates. The countries in which they lie are not good neighbours and have little history of scientific co-operation.

Hence there are relatively few studies of Himalayan glaciers and data is less than perfect – all the more reason for holding back on predictions, but good reason too to be concerned about what we don’t know in regards to climate change. Hilton rightly notes that some glaciers in the Himalayas are expanding, as in the Karakorum range, but that as far as we know, 80 percent are showing signs of retreat.

In a way, it’s useful that stories like this allow the public to see the vulnerabilities of scientific communities, while it’s surely good that the complexities of glaciology are at least intimated at. Yet the global picture is far clearer. Alaskan glaciers are in rapid retreat (ironically causing sea levels to fall as the land rises in response). The Columbia glacier, for example, was found by a 2005 study to have shrunk by 9 miles. Alpine glaciers in Europe have lost 50 percent of their mass since 1850. While some glaciers in New Zealand (at higher altitudes) are expanding, the country’s largest – the Tasman glacier is disappearing fast. In Latin America, Bolivians are already thinking about evacuating their capital, La Paz, due to the shrinkage of Andean glaciers which provide its water supply, a problem which is being experienced across north and eastern Latin America. The ice cap of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s only glacier, continues to shrink.

This is a real, devastating process, which threatens the livelihood of many millions of people along with catastrophic ecological consequences. Hence, we need to be serious about studying it and communicating this to publics for whom individual “scandals” like this can be important in shifting their opinions. Those who use this kind of slip up to make a broader point that climate change is a fiction, and that efforts to mitigate and adapt to it are misguided, are abhorrent. But that doesn’t mean that members of the UN hierarchy and contributing scientists can play fast and loose with their source material.

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