IPCC Acknowledges Himalayan Glacier Error; Defends Overall Assessment

January 26, 2010

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has admitted that its Fourth Assessment Report contained an error – in one paragraph of the 938 page document – in asserting that global warming could cause the glaciers in the Himalayan mountain ranges to disappear by 2035.

Controversy over the assertion first arose in early December, when a professor at Ontario Trent University, J. Graham Cogley, revealed that the correct date should have been 2350.

As the Himalayan mountain range contains more ice than any other area on earth, other than the polar regions – an estimated 12,000 cubic kms, or 7500 cubic miles – and provides water to China, India and other parts of Southeast Asia, the disappearance of the glaciers that feed the rivers would be a disaster.

While the error is a serious one, the IPCC defended its overall conclusion that “climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanization.”

It also indicated that “human error” had been the source of the incorrect statement, and promised greater care in making future assessments.

Other sections of the Report discuss the critical role “mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play” in water supplies. It also stressed that “widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by melt water from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.”

Nonetheless climate skeptics jumped on the admission to attack other conclusions in the IPCC’s assessment report. Dubbed “ClimateGate” in much of the media, it provided an open forum for those who question the whole idea of climate change to voice their opinions.

The IPCC, however wasn’t about to back down. “This conclusion [that melting glaciers pose a long term threat to water supplies] is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment,” said a bulletin on its web site.

How far the controversy will go in discrediting the IPCC is unclear. Certainly the skeptics, now that they are armed with a “Gate” scandal, will continue to assert that the error shows an overall pattern of bias in the rest of the IPCC’s climate assessments, despite the fact that there’s no evidence that this is the case.

The head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, has come under increasing pressure to resign, but in an interview with the BBC he strongly defended his organization and his position, stating that he would not “stand down.”

Sources: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – www.ippc.ch and news reports

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