Monday, January 18, 2010

An inconvenient oops

The forecast for climate-change science seems to be unsettled. The Sunday Times reports:
A warning that climate change will melt most of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 is likely to be retracted after a series of scientific blunders by the United Nations body that issued it.

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world’s glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist [. . .]

It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephone interview with Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was “speculation” and was not supported by any formal research.
Fred Pearce, the journalist who carried out the original interview for the New Scientist, says he rang Hasnain after seeing his claims in an Indian magazine:
“Hasnain told me then that he was bringing a report containing those numbers to Britain. The report had not been peer reviewed or formally published in a scientific journal and it had no formal status so I reported his work on that basis.

“Since then I have obtained a copy and it does not say what Hasnain said. In other words it does not mention 2035 as a date by which any Himalayan glaciers will melt. However, he did make clear that his comments related only to part of the Himalayan glaciers, not the whole massif.”
The World Wildlife Fund cited the article in a report called An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China (available here):
But it was a campaigning report rather than an academic paper so it was not subjected to any formal scientific review. Despite this it rapidly became a key source for the IPCC when [Professor Murari Lal] and his colleagues came to write the section on the Himalayas.

When finally published, the IPCC report did give its source as the WWF study but went further, suggesting the likelihood of the glaciers melting was “very high”. The IPCC defines this as having a probability of greater than 90%.
Lal now says that “he would recommend that the claim about glaciers be dropped” from IPCC reports. I wonder if he has checked this with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who has previously dismissed criticism of the Himalayas claim as “voodoo science”.

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