Himalayan Glacier Goof-Up: More Fake Ammo for the Climate Denial Industry

Let's get this straight.

The glaciers in Africa, Europe, Greenland, North America, South America and, yes, the Himalayas are melting. Of the 442 major glaciers, 398 are diminishing and at accelerating rates. This is irrefutable, basic science.

What is in doubt is exactly how quickly and in what configuration the melting is occurring. Like all natural systems, the formation and deformation of glaciers is extraordinarily complex, enough so to warrant an entire branch of science (glaciology). For example ...

Vast stretch of glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau are dwindling so rapidly that Chinese government officials are becoming increasingly alarmed over the impact of diminishing water supplies. Meanwhile, in another corner of the same plateau (home of Mount Everest) the glaciers appear to be growing. Ice, it turns out, is very complicated stuff. That’s why there are hundreds of scientists examining everything from time-lapse photographs to NASA satellite imagery, to atmospheric water vapor particles.

But all the evidence points to the same conclusion: The Himalayan glaciers are as a whole diminishing. So let’s put that to rest right away. No debate. It’s melting. Get used to it. Here's just one example:

Now back to the “Glacier Goof-up” story.

As it turns out Fred Pearce — the journalist who is responsible for originally publishing the apocalyptic date of 2035 alongside the rather outlandish claim that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by said date — is the same Fred Pearce who just ran the story in the New Scientist that is causing a euphoric frenzy in the climate skeptic community: Debate heats up over IPCC melting glaciers claim.

The title implies that there is some form of a “debate” actually occurring at the IPPC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) about whether or not glaciers are melting. Such a debate does not exist and one wonders why the author (or the New Scientist editor) chose to paint the story in such a misleading light.

Here’s one theory — perhaps this recent article was an attempt to preemptively clear the journalist’s name for an error he made back in 1999. According to an article in today's Hindustan Times, the now-retired scientist Dr. Syed Hasnain who allegedly made the 2035 pronouncement, said he was misquoted:

On the basis of our research in 1999, I must have said that glaciers in the Central and Eastern Himalayas will lose mass during the next 40/50 years at their present rate of decline.

What Dr. Hasnain did not say in reference to the Himalayan glaciers is that "...the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high."

That nugget apparently came from the flowing pen of Fred Pearson, a nugget which subsequently ended up in a WWF (World Wildlife Foundation) report that was then briefly cited in one of three IPCC reports published in 2007.

At the time the 1999 New Scientist article came out, the claim was roundly dismissed by numerous scientists. But the faux factoid stuck, and for a reason that is utterly incomprehensible to anyone, the authors of the 2007 IPCC felt inclined to reference it.

The story gets a little stranger and exposes a fundamental handicap displayed by the scientific community in general — a total lack of concern with public opinion.

Scientists only really seem to care about what other scientists think about them. Normal humans just don’t seem to matter that much, a point well made by George Monbiot in his description of the almost Laurel & Hardy reaction by scientists in the East Anglia controversy (aka Climate Gate). Watch his hilarious monologue (VIDEO).

In the case of the Glacier Goof-up, when Dr. Hasnain found out he had been misquoted, did he ask for a correction?

Nah ... for him it was of little importance. The reference was made in the context of a “news story,” not a scientific paper. So he figured it didn’t really matter that much.

Little did he know that this misquotation would eventually put him and the journalist who interviewed him at the center of a climate controversy, while providing the climate change denial industry with their biggest piece of weaponized misinformation to date.

And yes, they are working it. Just google “Himalayan glaciers” and you will see pages upon pages of right-wing blogs talking about how this finally proves the IPCC’s lack of credibility along with the validity of thousands of hard-core scientific studies published over the last decade.

And it’s not just the blogs. Several major media publications have picked up the spin with similarly misleading headlines such as this one from the Telegraph: UN report on glaciers melting is based on speculation.

How have we come to this? Is everyone hurting so badly for traffic that they would prefer to put out fishbait titles like this knowing full-well that most readers will get as far as “speculation” “debate” and “controversy” and quickly throw the glacier out with the bathwater?

At best this is just lame reporting and at worst, a conspiracy to strike a confused public (more) dumb.

In perfect inept form, IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri announced that the organization is investigating the matter and will have a position in “... two or three days.”

Take your time boys, no one is watching ... except tens of thousands of media organizations, numerous well-funded right-wing think tanks, and an army of tweet-happy skeptics that are taking your hesitation to the bank.

Fortunately, the Union of Concerned Scientists decided not to wait. They issued a formal statement today clarifying that while the particular reference was in error, “Glaciers are still melting.”

However this controversy works out and whomever gets fired over it, one thing is certain ... the glaciers really don’t care what any of us think. They're going to keep trickling away.

Photo above of Rajendra Pachuri by University of Copenhagen.

ADDENDUM: I found out that the BBC called out this epic blunder on the part of the IPCC last year. Another report stated the date of 2350 (as the likely last day of the great Himalayan glaciers). The BBC surmises that a little dyslexia was to blame for inclusion in the report, which seems far-fetched given that this equally speculative figure came from a 1996 report, 10 years before we had amassed sufficient evidence to plot the speed of deglaciation in the Himalayas. When confronted with this blunder last year, RK Pachauri said. "I don't have anything to add on glaciers."

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