The Himalayas circa 2035

Once again we see that scientists are not perfect, but flawed like the rest of us (duh), and it turns out the reports made by those flawed humans are also not perfect (duh).

Science works fine in aggregate, but this idea that science must have only flawless people doing impeccable work is a strawman set up by the superstitious to discredit empiricism through nutpicking. –Tim F.

The IPCC Working Group 2 report (yes there are more than 1 IPCC reports included in the overall assessment) claimed that the likelihood of the Himalayan glaciers “disappearing by the year 2035″ was “very high”. This was wrong. Very wrong.  And it highlights why sticking to the peer-reviewed literature is so important. This particular claim came from a 2005 WWF report, which got its estimate of glacier loss from a 1999 article in New scientist.

And while both WWF reports and New Scientist are generally reliable, they are not peer-reviewed and thus should be viewed with increased scepticism. The IPCC failed to do this, and thus included an estimate for Himalayan glaciers that was obviously wrong.

As Mauri Pelto, director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project, says:

Graham [Cogley] and I both reviewed the IPCC section on glaciers and ice sheets, and the 2035 date is not there. It is in the regional section where only regional scientists reviewed the information…

[Himalayan Glaciers] show a sustain substantial retreat that is worrisome, but again the retreat rate average is between 10 and 20 m per year on large glaciers… One of the poster glaciers for Himalayan retreat is the Gangotri Glacier, this glacier is noted as retreating around 15 m year, and is 15 km long. How can we get rid of this anytime soon?

Even though the 2035 date is obviously wrong, it doesn’t mean that Himalayan glaciers are not in receding. They are. At alarming rates.

So is this the climate scandal that many are making this out to be?

No. Of course not.

The IPCC reports are roughly 3000 pages long, it is not surprising that some errors made it through. Especially in the Working Groups 2 and 3, which suffer from a smaller amount of relevant peer-reviewed literature, and inherently greater uncertainty. And especially in the regional sections that were only reviewed by regional scientists.

the measure of an organisation is not determined by the mere existence of errors, but in how it deals with them when they crop up. The current discussion about Himalayan glaciers is therefore a good opportunity for the IPCC to further improve their procedures and think more about what the IPCC should be doing in the times between the main reports.

The IPCC has already acknowledged the error, though it will take considerably more time for policies to change.

It is also worth noting that despite what has been claimed this is not a ‘central claim’ of the IPCC. First the 2035 date only appears in the regional section of the WG2. The claim didn’t make it to the summary for policy makes, or even the chapter summary. This helps explain why so few people noticed the error until quite recently.

Secondly it was not put in the IPCC to add political pressure, despite what has been claimed [UPDATE: It is looking like this claim was completely made up]. Politicians read the summary for policymakers, and not much else. Anything that doesn’t make it into the summary wont put any political pressure on anyone.

And most importantly, this claim is not part of the WG1. This is the working group tasked with understanding the physical science. They are the ones who answer the questions: is the earth warming? (yes), and if so what is the cause? (primarily our GHG emissions). This whole kerfuffle is completely unrelated to the science showing that out GHG emissions are the cause of the recent warming trend.

Much like not knowing everything is not the same as not knowing anything, not getting everything correct is not the same as getting everything incorrect.

This most recent attack on the IPCC is purely political, and science can not be refuted by politics.

UPDATE: Climatologist Andrew Weaver expands on this whole issue:

2 thoughts on “The Himalayas circa 2035

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  1. “This most recent attack on the IPCC is purely political, and science can not be refuted by politics.”

    Define ‘refuted’. I fear that the truth can easily be buried by the politics, convincing some unreasonably large percentage of the population that the science really *has* been refuted, in which case it almost kind of has been. Even though it hasn’t. You know what I mean.

  2. For me refuted means shown to be false . Which I define separately from convincing non-experts.

    Politics can bury truth, and can even convince people of falsehoods, but it cannot refute truth. If only more people would understand this distinction.

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