Like all human endeavours, the IPCC is not perfect. Despite the enormous efforts devoted to producing its reports with the multiple levels of peer review, some errors will sneak through. Most of these will be minor and inconsequential, but sometimes they might be more substantive. As many people are aware (and as John Nieslen-Gammon outlined in a post last month and Rick Piltz goes over today), there is a statement in the second volume of the IPCC (WG2), concerning the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are receding that is not correct and not properly referenced.
The statement, in a chapter on climate impacts in Asia, was that the likelihood of the Himalayan glaciers “disappearing by the year 2035” was “very high” if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate (WG 2, Ch. 10, p493), and was referenced to a World Wildlife Fund 2005 report. Examining the drafts and comments (available here), indicates that the statement was barely commented in the reviews, and that the WWF (2005) reference seems to have been a last minute addition (it does not appear in the First- or Second- Order Drafts). This claim did not make it into the summary for policy makers, nor the overall synthesis report, and so cannot be described as a ‘central claim’ of the IPCC. However, the statement has had some press attention since the report particularly in the Indian press, at least according to Google News, even though it was not familiar to us before last month.
It is therefore obvious that this error should be corrected (via some kind of corrigendum to the WG2 report perhaps), but it is important to realise that this doesn’t mean that Himalayan glaciers are doing just fine. They aren’t, and there may be serious consequences for water resources as the retreat continues. See also this review paper (Ren et al, 2006) on a subset of these glaciers.
East Rongbuk glacier just below Mt. Everest has lost 3-400 ft of ice in this area since 1921.
More generally, peer-review works to make the IPCC reports credible because many different eyes with different perspectives and knowledge look over the same text. This tends to make the resulting product reflect more than just the opinion of a single author. In this case, it appears that not enough people with relevant experience saw this text, or if they saw it, did not comment publicly. This might be related to the fact that this text was in the Working Group 2 report on impacts, which does not get the same amount of attention from the physical science community than does the higher profile WG 1 report (which is what people associated with RC generally look at). In WG1, the statements about continued glacier retreat are much more general and the rules on citation of non-peer reviewed literature was much more closely adhered to. However, in general, the science of climate impacts is less clear than the physical basis for climate change, and the literature is thinner, so there is necessarily more ambiguity in WG 2 statements.
In future reports (and the organisation for AR5 in 2013 is now underway), extra efforts will be needed to make sure that the links between WG1 and the other two reports are stronger, and that the physical science community should be encouraged to be more active in the other groups.
In summary, 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.
Update: This backgrounder presented by Kargel et al AGU this December is the best summary of the current state of the Himalayas and the various sources of misinformation that are floating around. It covers this issue, the Raina report and the recent Lau et al paper.
1804 Responses to "The IPCC is not infallible (shock!)"
Luke Lea says
Mightn’t it be better if the Group I reports on the science itself were disassociated from the Group II and III reports? They could be prepared by the scientific societies themselves and do not need UN sanction to gain credibility.
David B. Benson says
And just who was it who vowed to find all such climate errors and did he spot this one?
w kensit says
Unfortunately AGW true statements are weighed in a handsfull of goose down and never remembered. AGW stumbles are measured in shovel loads of lead and never forgotten.
Jerry Steffens says
Is part of the problem due to the fact that the three reports are prepared more-or-less concurrently? Perhaps it would be be better if the report on the science of climate change were completed first and was then used as the basis of the other two reports.
David Horton says
Nevertheless, the ice melts.
“but it is important to realise that this doesn’t mean that Himalayan glaciers are doing just fine. They aren’t, and there may be to be serious consequences for water resources as the retreat continues.”
I always thought that as they melt they release water for people, plants and animals downstream. Anyway no worries, now just so readers don’t get a one-sided view of this glacier story from RC here are some other views from the BBC, NASA, ETH Zurich and and a senior glaciologist in India.
“In fact, the new research, by NASA’s William Lau and collaborators, reinforces with detailed numerical analysis what earlier studies suggest: that soot and dust contribute as much (or more) to atmospheric warming in the Himalayas as greenhouse gases.”
“Based on the differences it’s not difficult to conclude that greenhouse gases are not the sole agents of change in this region. There’s a localized phenomenon at play.”
“But some scientists claim that glaciers in the Himalayas are not retreating as fast as was believed. Others who have observed nearby mountain ranges even found that glaciers there were advancing.”
“The report, by senior glaciologist Vijay Kumar Raina, formerly of the Geological Survey of India, seeks to correct a widely held misimpression based on measurements of a handful of glaciers: that India’s 10,000 or so Himalayan glaciers are shrinking rapidly in response to climate change. That’s not so, Raina says.”
“The most recent studies by researchers at ETH Zurich show that in the 1940s Swiss glaciers were melting at an even-faster pace than at present.”
Eric & the rest of you guys are doing a great job of keeping us informed about the risks & dangers of human-driven climate change.
Now who’s gonna make sure that our leaders & citizenry get it?
Where’s our MLK for AGW?
David Horton says
Good work Jimbo – as usual then, any phenomenon anywhere in the world is due to local factors not global warming. I await the explanation of why the other glaciers of the world, unaware that they don’t need to melt because glacier retreat in the Himalayas is due to local factors, nevertheless also melt. Would almost suggest, would it not, some kind of global process in operation. If only we could get the scientists to investigate what that global process might be.
Doug Bostrom says
Gee, and I thought I refreshed RC obsessively; it seems doubters are running at many cycles per second..
Thanks for the update!
As an exercise, be sure to study the ecology of this story. What I’ve noticed is, like other examples (TomskTwaddle)it’s analogous to some toxin released in an aquatic environment. First it’s picked up by bottom feeders processing sediment, then it moves up the food chain, ultimately poisoning organisms farther up the food chain, increasing in toxicity all the way. WUWT–>Register–>Mirror–>Telegraph–>Times–>? Few journalists are able to resist eating something with even a hint of incompetence or scandal no matter how trivial, so we end up with lots of mentally poisoned media consumers.
Completely Fed Up says
“as usual then, any phenomenon anywhere in the world is due to local factors not global warming.”
Unless you count local as “on this planet”, then a local effect won’t be a global one.
Completely Fed Up says
“I always thought that as they melt they release water for people, plants and animals downstream. ”
As an example…
Tony O'Brien says
The glaciers are retreating and we need to be prepared to deal with the consequences. There are many uncertainties as to when the glaciers will be entirely gone, but there are already consequences of retreating glaciers.
Should we be using unduly pessimistic predictions then we will be prepared a little early. Where we use unduly optimistic predictions; then we risk one mitigation effort, after another, being swamped by the rate of change.
I think it was John Holdren who said we have to “avoid the unadaptable and adapt to the unavoidable” so far we are doing neither.
Chris Keene says
The climate denying UK tabloid newspaper the Daily Express had a big headline on the front page on Monday 18th Jan ‘The new climate change scandal’. They also use it to criticise Pachauri ‘a former railway engineer with a PhD in economics and no formal climate change qualifications … with a network of business interests that attract millions of pounds in funding thanks to IPCC policies’
This raises the question : how is the “likelihood” of such events assessed in WG II ? is there any “normal procedure” to compute it ?
Jim Torson says
More information on Himalayan glaciers is available in the presentation entitled “Satellite-era glacier changes in High Asia.” This contains a good discussion of the complexities of Himalayan glacier behavior and also includes a discussion of the error in the IPCC report. This was prepared as background support material for the NASA “Black Carbon and Aerosols” press conference at the AGU meeting. The availability of this was recently announced in a message posted to the Cryolist email list by an assistant researcher at the University of Arizona:
Below are links to a revised presentation that was developed as background
information for a “Black carbon aerosols in the Himalaya” press conference held
at the 2009 AGU meeting in San Francisco. The background report herein
represents a 17-authored revision and expansion of the previous version made
available last month.
Note three available formats (ppt, pptx, pdf):
John Atkeison says
It would be very appropriate to publish a current assessment and projection.
I will continue to use this region and its glaciers as an example of how Global Warming affects everything from agriculture to immigration to weather. It would be good to have at least a link to some current estimates for some levels and timing of impacts in order to speak in a more informed way.
Louis C Smith says
New Tibetan Ice Cores Missing A-bomb Blast Markers; Suggest Himalayan Ice Fields Haven’t Grown In Last 50 Years
ScienceDaily (Dec. 13, 2007) — Ice cores drilled last year from the summit of a Himalayan ice field lack the distinctive radioactive signals that mark virtually every other ice core retrieved worldwide.
That missing radioactivity, originating as fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests during the 1950s and 1960s, routinely provides researchers with a benchmark against which they can gauge how much new ice has accumulated on a glacier or ice field.
In 2006, a joint U.S.-Chinese team drilled four cores from the summit of Naimona’nyi, a large glacier 6,050 meters (19,849 feet) high on the Tibetan Plateau.
The researchers routinely analyze ice cores for a host of indicators – particulates, dust, oxygen isotopes, etc. — that can paint a picture of past climate in that region.
Scientists believe that the missing signal means that this Tibetan ice field has been shrinking at least since the A-bomb test half a century ago. If true, this could foreshadow a future when the stockpiles of freshwater will dwindle and vanish, seriously affecting the lives of more than 500 million people on the Indian subcontinent.
“There’s about 12,000 cubic kilometers (2,879 cubic miles) of fresh water stored in the glaciers throughout the Himalayas – more freshwater than in Lake Superior,” explained Lonnie Thompson, distinguished university professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University and a researcher with the Byrd Polar Research Center on campus.
“Those glaciers release meltwater each year and feed the rivers that support nearly a half-billion people in that region. The loss of these ice fields might eventually create critical water shortages for people who depend on glacier-fed streams.”
Thompson and his colleagues worry that this massive loss of meltwater would drastically impact major Indian rivers like the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra that provide water for one-sixth of the world’s population.
This is now published: Kehrwald N. M., L. G. Thompson, Y. Tandong, E. Mosley-Thompson, U. Schotterer, V. Alfimov, J. Beer, J. Eikenberg, M. E. Davis (2008), Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources. Geophysical Research Letters, 35, L22503, doi:10.1029/2008GL035556.
Steve Bloom says
Re #8: Why are glaciers melting away all over the world? Simple, David — it’s a CO2-fueled conspiracy! So Jimbo should be on board with cutting off their supply, right? :)
David Horton says
#10 CFU re #8 Should I have put a sarcasm smiley face on my post CFU? Or were you agreeing with my criticism of Jimbo’s nonsense about “local effects”?
Jimbo’s link (his 4th) on the Science news story, which is identical to the recent tempest in a teapot about the Himalayan glaciers, shows how this issue was cleverly hidden in plain sight.
Link 1 and 2: The melting may also be from soot. I am sure that is a great consolation to the people who depend on these glaciers.
Link 3: BBC story about Link 4.
Link 5: not about the Himalayas at all.
All in all, nothing which contradicts what Gavin said, and hence can’t be a “second” view to balance Gavin’s so-called “one-sided” view.
Hank Roberts says
More (and better) links in a prior post by Tim Jones on the Indian comments about glaciers here:
Sean A says
So what would be a more accurate time frame for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers? By 2050? 2100?
David Horton says
re #18 Quite right Steve – and I have some emails from glaciers that prove it.
John Ransley says
Thanks for this sensible corrective. As expected The Australian newspaper went to town on the issue, starting with a reprint of the Sunday Times report:
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/united-nations-blunder-on-glaciers-exposed/story-e6frg6n6-1225820614171, and proceeding to this editorial:
I quote from the latter, only to illustrate the point that the The Australian’s coverage, although improving, can still be very damaging :
RULE number one: if you want to claim authority for your science, it’s a good idea not to rely on third-hand sources. The news that the key report driving global policy on climate change used a throwaway line in a popular science magazine to suggest some Himalayan glaciers could disappear in 25 years reads like a Monty Python skit.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done itself serious damage in its bid to be the primary source of credible research on anthropogenic global warming. Its sweeping generalisation on glaciers erodes public trust in its 2007 report which was the basis for international negotiations at the December Copenhagen summit. To discover its assertion on glacial meltdown was borrowed from a report from campaigning environmental group WWF is disappointing. But it’s laughable to know WWF itself was merely quoting from a 1999 New Scientist phone interview with a little-known Indian researcher.”
The accompanying feature article in The Australian, by Cameron Stewart, wasn’t too bad overall, although it concludes with the statements:
“…the revelations this week have opened a heated debate that goes beyond the science of glaciers and to the heart of the credibility of the IPCC.
As Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation told London’s Daily Mail: “The IPCC review process has been shown on numerous occasions to lack transparency and due diligence”.
At a time when governments are baulking at taking tough measures to combat climate change, this new blow to the credibility of the IPCC could not have come at a worse time.”
“Link 1 and 2: The melting may also be from soot. I am sure that is a great consolation to the people who depend on these glaciers.”
You have to understand that climate deniers live in this sheltered world where they believe climate scientists think that every single climate force on the planet is due entirely to CO2, therefore to come up with an effect which does not have CO2 as a cause disproves AGW…
Of course real climate scientists believe no such thing, but its so much easier for the deniers to argue with the caricature of a climate science that they hold in their head, than to argue with an actual climate scientist…
Richard Ordway says
re 13 Chris Keene wrote “”The climate denying UK tabloid newspaper the Daily Express had a big headline on the front page on Monday 18th Jan ‘The new climate change scandal’.””
…science by its very nature (luckily for humanity) is on the extreme edge of human knowledge and is open for checking and changing.
It takes many studies to build a “body of evidence” over many years for things to settle out. That is why you don’t rely on any single study, and science never has, to determine large conclusions… and everything is still open for debate and publishable if you have evidence.
Human-caused climate change relies on a body of evidence that is thousands of peer-reviewed studies long and reaching back to 1824 (Fourier).
Sloppy procedures in one of about 3000 pages from one of thousands of studies does not dent in the slightest the evidence from the body of evidence reaching back almost 200 years.
By comparison many bibles (like the Scofield) are only about 2000 pages long (the 2007 IPCC report was about 3000 pages long). Errors will unfortunately be made in such a huge mass…but you don’t hear of many errors in the IPCC documents, which is amazing in its own right.
rosie hughes says
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, all this fixation on get-it-right, got-it-wrong is obscuring the real issue: the truth is what we define it to be, and the truth is that mankind is a scourge on the planet. The sooner we can limit the right to breed, the sooner the planet will recover. If glacier data is a little incorrect but helps that effort, then the data is true in all but a very narrow and clinical scientific sense.
Common people don’t really understand science. But they understand not having enough to eat and not being able to sit down on a too-crowded subway. if we can educate people not to reproduce there will be many seats and the fewer people will be happier. Indeed, as the capitalist economies of scale are reduced, the atisfaction from making your own clothes and embracing a low-carbon vegan diet will be so intense, reproduction will come to be seen in the same category as child abuse.
I yearn for the day when i might not have been born!
Perfect reference for this type of situation is Rosholt, J etal., J Geology, 1963, v71, p810 which reads
“Oh, well, nobody is perfect.”
referring to a minor error which had no effect on the conclusions.
Lynn Vincentnathan says
Good post. (I’ve already said too much on this earlier.)
Wasn’t it someone from NASA who said “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice”?
I think its a pity that, when it comes to climate change, what is clearly a mistake (the 2035 date is pretty absurd when you think about it), gets reported as if something deliberately nefarious is afoot. Its similar to Monckton claiming the ‘x10 typo’ was a deliberate attempt by government bureaucrats to deceive the world, although one would think that if you were going to try and deceive people you would at least make the column add up.
I’m concerned about the reproduction of some the published papers. After seeing how software has been effecting mathematics, I’m becoming wary of it. I think the scientific and mathematics communities need to come together and write a open source scientific platform. Unless this platform is created, I think we are going to be taking some things on faith instead of rigor, and the faith based approach may cause considerable problems on down the road.
I think this problem is going to be ever increasing as we use computers for more and more things.
John E. Pearson says
19: David, I know from experience that sarcasm is hard for people to detect here.
cold in the UK says
Great article from Richard Betts from the UK met office
He Makes a great point
Climate “sceptics” accuse climate scientists of exaggerating the evidence for human-caused climate change in order to secure their own funding; but actually I think that any vested interests in talking up the problem lie elsewhere.
Tom S says
From a skeptic, I think you give extra respectability to this site when you lay the facts out as you did. It’s clear this post is not your favorite thing to do. I bounce between here and ClimateAudit (I am plenty aware of the opinion of ClimateAudit here…). The moderation here is very fair, not that it is absent of (perceived) bias, but it is not blinded by it. There is a real effort to keep the facts straight, both pro and con, and that is refreshing with the polarization of this subject. OK, enough of this flattery, back to the fight.
Not only is the IPCC fallible, but NASA is as well, and even more so.
Had almost the same error, just a little worse.
“Mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined on average in both hemispheres, and may disappear altogether in certain regions of our planet, such as the Himalayas, by 2030″
Note the 2030 figure, not the 2035 figure. I assume NASA must have used another source.
The comment has been silently vanished today, but you can still read it in the Google cache.
If there are any NASA employees here, can they perhaps comment on why NASA published an incorrect statement, and then silently removed it without any comment on their error – unlike the IPCC.
Will NASA take some steps to remedy the false information that has been read by many of their web viewers? Perhaps by a statement, or even a link on the offending web page pointing out their previous error?
[Response: That’s a joke right? They fix an error, and now you want them to track down and apologise to everyone who may have read it? If something is wrong, it gets fixed. You should be happy. – gavin]
Dave Rado says
The Daily Express, a UK mass-market tabloid newspaper that has lately turned into a propaganda organ of the denialist lobby groups, recently made a meal of this in a front page article.
Philip Machanick says
Chris Keene #13: Pachauri has two PhDs (Industrial Engineering and Economics). That a newspaper should attempt to traduce him by making it sound as if he’s unqualified is pretty dishonest (“railway engineer” sounds like someone who drives a steam train).
If indeed he has business interests that somehow benefit from the IPCC’s work, it’s bizarre that the UK wingnut press happily reports that his “business interests” (actually looks more like a big research lab) were funded by the Tata Group, who stand to lose big time if there are serious moves to cut emissions.
The brilliant thing about conspiracy theory is that you can make the evidence mean anything you like.
Glaciers aside the IPCC must respond to criticisms by several groups that some high CO2 scenarios in the 4th report are physically impossible. Oil production has peaked, natural gas may follow within a decade then coal may peak a decade later. The reasons are depletion and lower yields from less accessible deposits. If IPCC dismisses these critics (e.g. Energy Watch Group, Aleklett, Rutledge) without a good explanation they undermine their credibility.
Edward Greisch says
So when do you think those glaciers will be gone? Will the glaciers in Tibet be gone at about the same time as the glaciers in Nepal? All together the Tibetan and Nepalese glaciers provide summer water for 2 Billion people in China, indochina and the Indian subcontinent. I’m sure that they would like to know for how long they will have water. That water is used for irrigation in all of those places.
No Gavin, I don’t want NASA to track everyone down. But I would like a public acknowledgment of error as the IPCC have done.
NASA needs to do their own statement because they put in their own figure 2030 rather than 2035. Or is the 2030 figure in fact an error in transcribing 2035 frm the IPCC? Which in its own right may well have been an error in transcribing 2350?
David B. Benson says
Johnno (23) — As I understand it, IPCC just picks some scenarios and does projections against those. If the high end scenarios are physically implausible, so much the better.
Gavin, I think your reply at #21 is a little disingenuous. It’s not a question of tracking down and apologising to anyone who may have read the statement, it’s a matter of there being some continuity in the evidence presented.
The page this statement appears on is headed “Evidence”, then subtitled “Climate Change: How do we know?” This sentence has been deleted;
“Mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined on average in both hemispheres, and may disappear altogether in certain regions of our planet, such as the Himalayas, by 2030”
and replaced, by this one;
“Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.”
I think that there should at least be some acknowledgment, if only as a footnote, that the evidence that was presented earlier was wrong and has now been corrected.
You have to look long and hard to find serious goof-ups in the IPCC literature. Now can you point to any “skeptic” literature with errors as few and far between as the IPCC’s?
Should you respond to this post, please provide direct references (not just empty assertions).
David Miller says
Johno opines that emissions must fall because we’ve hit peak oil/gas
Johno, I wish that were so, and to some degree it may be true. Unfortunately, however, it may have the opposite effect by driving us to coal and other alternatives instead.
For example, I can heat my home with oil now. When oil goes to $10/gal, coal generated electricity at .15/KWH is a lower cost per BTU. But I only get a third as much heat per unit of CO2 produced because of losses in electrical generation and transmission, so I produce three times as much CO2 to keep warm.
In-situ partial combustion of Canadian tar sands allows the energy return on energy invested to be less than unity because it can be burned by pumping oxygen to the oil. IE, when Saudi oil runs low we can make up for it by burning two barrels of “oil” to extract one in Canada.
There is a lot of coal in the world still. And Canada has a lot of tar sands.
The other big unknown is when positive environmental feedbacks start kicking in. Bark beetles kill trees and lightning lights a forest fire. Carbon decomposes faster in warmer, drier soil. Biomass in hotter/drier zones fixes less CO2 from the air. Methane emissions from melting permafrost or clathrates have a frightening potential that is AFAIK still unquantified in any meaningful way.
Given the combination of these effects, I certainly can’t say with any certainty that our emissions are going down in the next 50 years.
I work for a government department and if we produced a report the size of the IPCC that had only one minor error in it we’d be very pleased with ourselves.
The point is not to try to convince the denialists, who will never be convinced, , but to convince policy makers.
Caerbannog (#43) This is a bit of a non sequitur. Why should it make any difference whether or not some other set of literature is riddled with errors or free of errors?
The point is that a specific claim was made on the NASA website. That claim has now disappeared without explanation. Surely there should at least be an “oops” footnote.
Dale Power says
What will be missed by many is that this information, while technically important, is irrelevant to the actual state of Global Climate Change.
We now get to hear for the next six years about how some corrupt scientist got millions of dollars faking the Glacial melt rate for the entire world…
You think I’m kidding?
Something has to be done about the organized denial groups. I don’t know what of course, but SOMETHING needs to be done, before they stall us into inaction for the next century.
Have you demanded that skeptics who published erroneous information acknowledge their mistakes? If not, will you acknowledge that you have been acting like a hypocrite here?
This is OT, sorry, but Gavin et al. have you seen this?
“Why Hasn’t Earth Warmed as Much as Expected?”
Stephen E. Schwartz, Robert J. Charlson, Ralph A. Kahn, John A. Ogren, Henning Rodhe”
It sis already doing the rounds amongst denialists. Any thoughts? Maybe a good paper for future analysis and discussion?
Jim Roland says
The AR4 WG3 notes on biofuels included a number of claims which would be laughable if their ramifications weren’t so worrying. See http://www.grain.org/m/?id=154 which links to a jointly authored letter citing these. For example:
“Cellulosic crops… may be grown in areas unsuitable for grains and other
food/feed crops and thus do not compete with food.”
“implementation [of biofuels in the transport sector] would
generally have positive social, environmental… side effects.”
“biofuel blending” as policy, measure or instrument [is] “shown to be environmentally effective… in at least a number of national cases” – a successful Brazilian tabled amendment to the Summary for Policymakers text. It is nowhere explained which national cases are referred to, nor on the basis of which papers, nor why remarks in widely cited papers referenced by the WG3 book that note uncertainty in this area have been discounted.
This kind of writing isn’t fit for schoolbooks, let alone a peer-reviewed tome of international, interdisciplinary authorship.
As you say Gavin, “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.” One does wonder how much of a further media hullabaloo would be needed to get the IPCC to acknowledge any of these faults, or any other, in the reports. Polite multiple emails and a letter haven’t.