Glacier-gate and climate change: What does it all mean?

January 21, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.


This Feb. 1, 2005 file photo shows an aerial view of the Siachen Glacier, which traverses the Himalayan region dividing India and Pakistan, about 750 kilometers (469 miles) northwest of Jammu, India. A U.N. warning that Himalayan glaciers were melting faster than any other place in the world and may be gone by 2035 was not backed up by science, U.N. climate experts said Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010, an admission that could energize climate change critics. (AP Photo/Channi Anand, file)

I’m sure the climate change skeptics who are loyal Coal Tattoo readers are closely watching the developing story over problems with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report and the melting of Himalayan glaciers.

If you missed it, there’s coverage everywhere: The New York Times,  National Public Radio, CNN, the Guardian … take your pick of media outlets, and they’ve probably covered this.

My buddy Seth Borenstein at The Associated Press led his story this way:

Five glaring errors were discovered in one paragraph of the world’s most authoritative report on global warming, forcing the Nobel Prize-winning panel of climate scientists who wrote it to apologize and promise to be more careful.

The errors are in a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-affiliated body. All the mistakes appear in a subsection that suggests glaciers in the Himalayas could melt away by the year 2035 – hundreds of years earlier than the data actually indicates. The year 2350 apparently was transposed as 2035.

But importantly, Seth added:

The climate panel and even the scientist who publicized the errors said they are not significant in comparison to the entire report, nor were they intentional. And they do not negate the fact that worldwide, glaciers are melting faster than ever.

Seth provided more detail than some of the other mainstream media reports I’ve seen about the specific errors at issue here. In doing so, he cited a letter published this week in the journal Science that explained the situation. Here’s how Seth summarized it:

The report in question is the second of four issued by the IPCC in 2007 on global warming. This 838-page document had chapters on each continent. The errors were in a half-page section of the Asia chapter. The section got it wrong as to how fast the thousands of glaciers in the Himalayas are melting, scientists said.

“It is a very shoddily written section,” said Graham Cogley, a professor of geography and glaciers at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, who brought the error to everyone’s attention. “It wasn’t copy-edited properly.”

Cogley, who wrote a letter about the problems to Science magazine that was published online Wednesday, cited these mistakes:

– The paragraph starts, “Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world.” Cogley and Michael Zemp of the World Glacier Monitoring System said Himalayan glaciers are melting at about the same rate as other glaciers.

– It says that if the Earth continues to warm, the “likelihood of them disappearing by the 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high.” Nowhere in peer-reviewed science literature is 2035 mentioned. However, there is a study from Russia that says glaciers could come close to disappearing by 2350. Probably the numbers in the date were transposed, Cogley said.

– The paragraph says: “Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 square kilometers by the year 2035.” Cogley said there are only 33,000 square kilometers of glaciers in the Himalayas.

– The entire paragraph is attributed to the World Wildlife Fund, when only one sentence came from the WWF, Cogley said. And further, the IPCC likes to brag that it is based on peer-reviewed science, not advocacy group reports. Cogley said the WWF cited the popular science press as its source.

– A table says that between 1845 and 1965, the Pindari Glacier shrank by 2,840 meters. Then comes a math mistake: It says that’s a rate of 135.2 meters a year, when it really is only 23.5 meters a year.

Still, Cogley said: “I’m convinced that the great bulk of the work reported in the IPCC volumes was trustworthy and is trustworthy now as it was before the detection of this mistake.”

Climate skeptics and their friends in the media are really jumping on this one, as you can see from this piece in The Economic Times:

Together with Climategate, it is a blow to its credibility as the reliable authority on global climate science. IPCC is the world’s premier outfit on climate change science and its assessments form the basis of government policy. The shadow of doubt cast by Climategate and Glaciergate is likely to boost the stand of climate sceptics. Given the serious nature of the climate challenge, this close succession of credibility calls could not have been more ill-timed for the panel.

But as with the “climate-gate” e-mail scandal, there’s more heat than light to this business about glacier data.

Over at Climate Progress, Joseph Romm has said that this isn’t even a story:

It isn’t news that the 2007 projections by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are not accurate.  The real news is that the 99% of their “mistakes” are UNDERestimates of likely impacts.   Indeed, they lowballed the sea level rise projections so badly that even the Bush administration rejected them within a year.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists is warning journalists and the public that climate skeptics are “inflating the importance” of these errors in the IPCC reports. Here’s their full write-up on the matter:

Factcheck: Contrarians Attack IPCC Over Glacier Findings, But Glaciers are Still Melting

Climate contrarians are inflating the importance of an erroneous reference to Himalayan glaciers in a 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to attack the scientific body and its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) expects ideological bloggers, some members of Congress, and fossil-fuel industry front groups to try to exploit this relatively small error in the report to bolster conspiracy theories about the IPCC and climate scientists.

The second of three 2007 IPCC reports included a statement that the likelihood that Himalayan glaciers will disappear “by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high.” It is not clear how this unsupported assertion made it into the report, although it was openly challenged by some researchers during the review and editing process. Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chairman, said this week that the IPCC will investigate the matter.

UPDATE: 1/20/2009 – The IPCC released a statement (pdf) on this issue. It says, in part, “The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance.”

Each of the three IPCC 2007 reports was written by a different working group. The reports, which covered climate science, the consequences of climate change, and potential strategies for reducing emissions and adapting to climate change, included discussions of nearly every climate study available from the scientific literature at the time. The working groups also issued shorter documents called “summaries for policymakers” that highlighted their most solid conclusions.

Regardless of how the statement remained in the full report after the review process, it is important to put it into scientific and political context, UCS experts said. The claim was part of the full review of climate science and impacts provided in the dense, 3,000-page report, but was not mentioned in its highly visible summaries for policymakers. Presumably the working group did not consider the 2035 Himalayan glaciers claim to be reliable enough for its policymaker summary. The statement in the summary was much less specific. “If current warming rates are maintained,” it stated, “Himalayan glaciers could decay at very rapid rates.”

Given the sprawling nature of the IPCC, it is not surprising to find relatively minor errors. Such mistakes do not undermine the overall conclusions of the organization’s reports, which are subject to an exhaustive review process. The IPCC reports reference as many as 20,000 documents and the writing and review process involved more than 2,500 expert scientific reviewers.


What should not get lost in this manufactured controversy is the fact that glaciers around the world are melting rapidly.

A 2005 global survey of 442 glaciers from the World Glacier Monitoring Service found that only 26 were advancing, 18 were stationary, and 398 were retreating. In other words, 90 percent of the world’s glaciers are shrinking as the planet warms.

Because scientific understanding of how fast snow and ice is responding to global warming is still developing, the IPCC left the effect of melting glaciers and ice sheets out of its sea-level rise projections in 2007 and largely considered the effects that thermal expansion has on the ocean.

New analyses indicate that meltwater from ice on land could lead to a sea-level rise of 2.6 feet (0.8 meter) by the end of the century; and, although 6.6 feet (2.0 meters) is less likely, it is still physically possible.

Melting glaciers and the resulting sea-level rise are a threat to coastal communities around the world. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2009 review of climate impacts in the United States, “Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected.”

Melting glaciers also will threaten drinking water supplies. An August 2008 Geophysical Research Letters study that examined the impact of the melting Himalayan Naimona’nyi glacier concluded, “If Naimona’nyi is characteristic of other glaciers in the region, alpine glacier meltwater surpluses are likely to shrink much faster than currently predicted with substantial consequences for approximately half a billion people.”


Although individual scientists can make mistakes, the scientific process corrects them. That’s one important way science moves forward. Climate contrarians often cherry-pick minor points like this one then inflate their importance to attack the broader science.

The rare times contrarians have proven scientists wrong, scientists have corrected the error and gone back to work. When scientists prove contrarians wrong—which happens all the time in and out of the scientific literature—contrarians tend to ignore them and move on to other points or simply repeat debunked arguments.

Because climate contrarians cannot ignore the overwhelming evidence that heat-trapping emissions from human activity are driving global warming, they have resorted to conspiracy theories and attacks on scientists to try to explain away reality. Climate contrarians likely will use this small error to try to undermine confidence in the IPCC and climate science generally. They also are using it to attack Pachauri personally. It is incumbent upon journalists to resist giving these attacks more credence than they deserve and avoid confusing the public about the real threat of global warming.

7 Responses to “Glacier-gate and climate change: What does it all mean?”

  1. pmm says:

    I am no expert on glaciers but I always suspected that they would be a less reliable indicator of global warming than say polar ice melt. The dynamics of a glacier are different, there is friction, internal melt caused by water moving under the glaciers, and lots of variables. I am sure that they are melting because of the increase in climate temp but the rate of melt is where I always thought the “devil would be in the details”. Maybe the devil was in the proof reading.

  2. Red Desert says:

    A lot of glaciers–the ones in the Alps and the ones in SE Alaska, for example–have been retreating for more than 100 years. To me, the time lines for those retreats never seemed to fit the anthropogenic climate change timeline. But a lot of the tropical glaciers (Bolivia, New Guinea) have begun to disappear quite suddenly.

    There is a lot we don’t know. Scientists argued about plate tectonics–the old guys said those new guys with their computers and geophysical models didn’t know one rock from another. Even today, there remain unresolved contradictions in the rock record arguing against plate tectonics and there is still a lot that plate tectonics doesn’t explain. The Rockies, I think, for one. But who would argue with the basic theory. Certainly not someone living along the San Andreas.

  3. MX2 says:

    A Skeptic here… The truth slowly comes out about the Man-Made Global Warming hoax, and I cannot resist a long post on Glacier-gate (sorry Ken). Plus, there’s plenty of space to fill here. I always like going back to the Bible-like UN IPCC Reports, which have been discussed before on this blog…I’m still amazed at how the climate models used are faulty and the IPCC authors mention that in the reports, but that is still OK. So now, other things are being found faulty too, but again, that’s OK. Neat how that works.

    This information on the Himalayas was known early last November (actually early last spring by another source, but largely ignored or overwhelmed in preparation of the now-failed Copenhagen meeting. It isn’t good to have your Nobel Prize winning report looking bad before trying to enact binding agreements between nearly all the world’s nations. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN IPCC, showed his expertise and class, and disdain for anything that disagreed with the IPCC reports leading up to this. Of course, after Copenhagen he’s now also in question for his numerous sources of funding and business interests in recent years (touched on above). Nor is he a climate scientist (he’s an engineer), but he is treated like one when any skeptic, climate scientist or not, is attacked as being out of their field.

    Here Pachauri was last November, being interviewed about the newly released report showing a lack of actual evidence of increased or abnormal melting in the Himalayas and slamming the report’s author Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister, (Guardian, 10 November 2009)

    …Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, told the Guardian: “We have a very clear idea of what is happening. I don’t know why the minister is supporting this unsubstantiated research. It is an extremely arrogant statement.”

    …Pachauri dismissed the report saying it was not “peer reviewed” and had few “scientific citations”.

    Pachauri said,”With the greatest of respect this guy retired years ago and I find it totally baffling that he comes out and throws out everything that has been established years ago.”

    …In response [to another scientist’s saying the glaciers would remain much longer than the IPCC predicted] Pachauri said that such statements were reminiscent of “climate change deniers and school boy science”.

    Other scientists, government officials, and environmental groups attacked the report author as well. So, now two months later things have changed and he and the IPCC were indeed wrong on what they had declared a “school boy” aspect, as they have been found wrong on others, and will be found wrong more in the future. They also explain they accepted non-peer reviewed information, or “gray information”, something scorned and belittled in the “peer-review card” used again and again as an argumentative tool if a skeptics view or “source” is not peer reviewed, oddly in a peer-review process shown to be biased through the Climategate e-mails. “School boy science” as Pachauri said…apparently better than the IPCC in some instances. There should now be a deeper look into the IPCC report creation process, as Climategate was much more than the ridiculous claim by the AP (Seth Borenstein, et al) that it did not show the science was faulty (or FOIA violations criminal). See

    Questions I wonder while typing away…Does Seth Borenstein have a degree in something like science? How much carbon are those thousands of previously unknown undersea volcanoes putting out that the climate models of 2007 were not incorporating? What was Pauchauri doing as a lecturer for WVU in 1981? Oh the intrigue. But I digress…

    Funny school-boy science thing. Up in that “Factcheck” portion of the above post, near the bottom of the knowledge of the Union of Concerned Scientists, it appears they may be using the now-recognized-as-wrong-data as their factchecking source for the Himalayas, and looking into it further, the writer for the UCS implies the Himalayan glaciers are melting quickly: “Melting glaciers also will threaten drinking water supplies. An August 2008 Geophysical Research Letters study that examined the impact of the melting Himalayan Naimona’nyi glacier concluded, “If Naimona’nyi is characteristic of other glaciers in the region, alpine glacier meltwater surpluses are likely to shrink much faster than currently predicted with substantial consequences for approximately half a billion people.”

    That 2008 report used as a source seems to have been made wrong by what the IPCC just (Jan 20, 2010) said concerning the impact of melting in the Himalayas (i.e., other glaciers in the region). The 2008 report says“…If Naimona’nyi is characteristic of other glaciers in the region” etc, but the newly released report says glaciers in the region aren’t melting abnormally…that is what they are apologizing for being wrong about! Actually, the abstract for the Geophysical Research Letters study says “Ice cores collected in 2006 from Naimona’nyi Glacier in the Himalaya (Tibet) lack these distinctive marker horizons suggesting no net accumulation of mass (Ice) since at least 1950.” Not that it is melting, but it hasn’t grown (“no net accumulation”) since 1950. Maybe there is yet another error to correct right there, or the UCS could remove that 2008 source from their factcheck. I could be wrong–just schoolboy science. Somebody check this.

  4. Red Desert says:


    Lot of virtual ink there. You should check out Lonnie Thompson–the glacier scientist from Ohio State. The big picture, with all its uncertainties, is way more interesting than picking nits.

    Anyway, my point about living on the San Andreas. I think it’s germane.

  5. MX2 says:

    I’ll look at Thompsons stuff. However, I don’t think Lonnie lied about the Himalayan Glaciers in the peer reviewed IPCC report AR4, solely for political gain as the corrupt scientist that did has now admitted. No. Lying isn’t a “nit” when it is in the report which is being used to change our state, and world, economy. If so, is everything else in the report a nit? Seems like the Amazon rain forest destruction figures may be, as well as the maid-up connections between “man-made global warming” and “natural disaster”, which was announced two days ago. Look back three weeks ago (or so) in this blog, where I pointed out that, unlike it is held by the IPCC report AR4 and Ken in his post, scientists now say the Bangladesh coastline is growing, not shrinking or being submerged by rising sea levels, as stated by the IPCC’s report. That hasn’t even been reported nationally in the last week, but that should add to the questions now being asked and the mistakes being pointed out.

    I know many glaciers are melting, and they have been since the last ice sheets began melting around 12,000 years ago. However, others are growing, as they did to a large extent elsewhere during the “little ice age” of the 17th and 18th centuries. They will someday grown again. We cannot stop natural climate change, but it seems like that is a desire among many.

  6. says:

    Interesting. Its funny how global warming is catching up with us so quickly. I just got back from a trip to Bolivia and found it interesting that people were talking about its glaciers and how quickly they were melting. Here is an interesting video that caught my attention. Enjoy

  7. […] despite all of the furor over the climate e-mails and mistakes in an IPCC report about how fast glaciers are melting, nothing has come out which really questions the key and consensus conclusions of the world’s […]

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