Himalayan Glacier Update: Nature Report Misleading

There is a new report in the journal Nature that some climate change alarmists are saying repudiates criticisms leveled at the IPCC over the Glaciergate scandal. In the “news feature,” a reporter looks at the “clues” scientists have found regarding the fate of the Himalayan glaciers from ground- and space-based studies. Though the scientists quoted clearly state they do not have enough data to draw meaningful conclusions—only 15 of 20,000 glaciers were examined on-site—the article still misleadingly says the glaciers are in trouble. It still had to admit the Himalayan glaciers won't vanish by 2035 and that they are not receding faster than glaciers in any other part of the world, both claims made previously by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This blog has previously report about the dust-up between Vijay Kumar Raina, formerly of the Geological Survey of India, and certain IPCC officials over a bogus claim that the glaciers of the Himalayas were rapidly melting due to climate change (see “Himalayan Glaciers Not Melting”). The false claim originated in the Asia chapter of the IPCC's 2007 Working Group II report, which claims that Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” Raina called “foul” and the resulting public scandal became commonly known as Glaciergate. Now, a new article has appeared in the journal Nature that attempts to soften the blow dealt to climate science.

Entitled “Settling the science on Himalayan glaciers,” the report would seem to resolve the fate of the glaciers but, in fact, it does nothing of the sort. Mason Inman, a freelance science writer based in Karachi, Pakistan, starts out with some local color—heroic glaciologists hiking through the harsh Himalayan environment facing “innumerable hazards en route: rock falls, heatstroke, dehydration, freezing and diarrhoea, among others.” Once you get beyond the fluff, there are some interesting comments farther in. Here are some salient tidbits from that article:

One thing is clear: the glaciers won't vanish by 2035, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claimed in its 2007 assessment report1. This error and others in the IPCC report's section on Himalayan glaciers — widely reported elsewhere — have now been corrected. But the ensuing furore has highlighted how little is actually known about the fate of glaciers in this region. The errors “were mainly based on the desire to say something”, says glaciologist Richard Armstrong of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. “But you need to know that if there's no data, you shouldn't say anything.”

Immediately after Dr. Armstrong's admonishment about speaking without having sufficient data, Graham Cogley jumped right in with what sounds like vindication of the IPCC:

As it stands, no one is even sure how many glaciers are in this part of the world. Current estimates suggest there are about 12,000 to 15,000 in the Himalayas and about 5,000 in the Karakoram. Of these thousands of glaciers, only 15 have been measured on the ground to see if they are gaining or losing ice overall. Despite the scarcity of data, trends are emerging. “It is pretty clear that the Himalayan glaciers have been losing mass, with markedly greater loss in the past decade than earlier,” says geographer Graham Cogley of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

A total of 15 out of 20,000 and this guy says he knows what the general trend is—some people just can't help making rash, unsupportable statements. Cogley does, however, back off his support for the IPCC claims saying:

[S]tudies don't show any support for another claim in the IPCC report that “glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world”. According to a 2006 review by Cogley and others, the Himalayas are in the middle of the pack, with European glaciers losing the least mass and those in Alaska losing the most.


Several studies of a handful of glaciers in Pakistan have found that many glaciers there are steady at their snouts, and some have even advanced. Others are flowing at about the same rate as decades ago. “The general story is that these glaciers are pretty healthy,” says glaciologist Luke Copland of the University of Ottawa in Ontario.

“Each glacier has its own individual behaviour,” says Mats Eriksson of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, Nepal. Science has no clear predictions of what's to come, making close monitoring of changes in the mountains all the more important. According to Eriksson:,“there has been too much focus on the glaciers as such.” Yes indeed, and not enough focus on doing good science.

In the future, scientists are holding out hope that satellite observations can substitute for on-site inspection of remote glaciers. A pair of satellites launched in 2002 and known as Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) can detect subtle changes in the Earth's gravity field, caused by variations in ground water, ice or plant life. In theory, GRACE should be able to detect the loss of ice in mountains such as the Himalayas. But just measuring the gravitational change doesn't necessarily identify the source of the change:

The first GRACE-based study of Asia's glaciers, published in February by Koji Matsuo and Kosuke Heki of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, estimates the mass loss of ice from the Himalayas, Karakoram and the Tibetan Plateau at about 50 billion tonnes per year over the period 2003 to 2009. This may be an overestimate, however. Farmers in the plains of northern India have pumped up groundwater much faster than it has been replaced — so much that the area is losing mass, regardless of any loss from the glaciers, according to a 2009 study that was the first to use GRACE measurements of this region.

What about those warnings of widespread, calamitous drought if the glaciers continue to melt? “Strictly speaking, we should separate the long-term ice in the glacier from the snow melt,” says Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University in New York. “The reality is that 10 to 20 per cent of the dry-season flow comes from glaciers themselves.” In fact, the water scare is just another IPCC exaggeration:

Initial studies of how the rivers will respond to ice loss show modest changes in stream flow — far from the IPCC report's dire scenario of rivers running dry. Even if the glaciers were lost completely, flows down the Indus would drop about 15 per cent overall, with little or no change in the dry-season flow, one recent study found. Lall cautions, however, that climate models are poor at simulating rain and snowfall, especially for the Asian monsoons. “I wouldn't hold these models to be very accurate,” he says.

Bottom line on all of this is that there will still be glaciers in the Himalayas hundreds of years from now. Yes, some of the glaciers in the Himalayas are slowly melting, all the glaciers on Earth flow and melt. This is normal for glaciers since the last ice age ended—that is why this time we live in is called an interglacial. But the glaciers are not rapidly melting at an accelerated or abnormal rate. Data from direct observations are scarce and the models, as usual, inaccurate. Like most things associated with climate science, the level of scientific maturity is low.

The article's explicit claim of “settling the science” is just untrue, unless continued ignorance counts as settled science. Even though the scientific opinions expressed in the Nature “news feature” are all over the map, the tone chosen by the reporter is one of dread and impending disaster. The truth is, science just doesn't know much about these remote glaciers and as Dr. Armstrong said, “if there's no data, you shouldn't say anything.” Climate change alarmists please take note. What we do know is this—reports of the glaciers' imminent demise are still just climate alarmist scaremongering.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

Not in a noticeable rush to melt.