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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

IPCC Finally Acknowledges Its “Himalayan Blunder”


BANGALORE, India—Amidst the doomsday scenario presented by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) there is one silver lining, at least the glaciers in the Himalayas are not disappearing for at least a couple of centuries. The billion plus people who inhabit the fertile flood plains of the Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra can breathe easy that the rivers which nurture them are not drying up anytime soon.

The Himalayas are considered the 'Third Pole’ since outside the polar regions they contain the largest amount of freshwater that is frozen into snow and ice. / Credit: Pallava Bagla

The IPCC had earlier asserted that the glaciers in the high Himalayas—also dubbed the “third pole”—would disappear by 2035. Now in its latest report, released in Yokohama, Japan on Sunday, it says “it is virtually certain that these projections [the current glacier melt rates] are more reliable than an earlier erroneous assessment of complete disappearance by 2035.”

What a climb down from the highly alarmist situation that the Himalayan glaciers would melt in another 21 years to a point where it acknowledges they will be around much more than our lifetimes! I am not a climate change denialist but am certainly against the trumpeting of exaggerated claims that are often made only on the basis of extrapolations from dodgy mathematical models.

The flood plain of the massive River Brahmaputra from eastern India. The river originates in the high Himalayas in the Tibetan region and if the waters were to dry up due to climate change it could become a point of tension between India and China. / Credit: Pallava Bagla

The 2007 Himalayan glacier error had badly tarnished the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC. Now Chris Field, one of the lead authors of the latest report, tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that the Himalayan glacier error was “really serious.” According to the French news agency AFP, in the massive Fifth Assessment Report on climate impacts the IPCC said Himalayan glaciers would shrink by 45 percent by 2100, if Earth's average surface temperature rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius. Under a far warmer scenario of 3.7 C, the reduction would be 68 percent. Field told the ABC, “we've tried to double check and triple check and quadruple check everything in this report.”

In its Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007, the IPCC had committed what came to be known as the `Himalayan Blunder’ or ‘Glacier-gate’ when it asserted 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.” It had then relied on un-published “grey literature.”

In 2009, against odds I had pursued an investigation that the IPCC had got its facts very wrong on the state of glaciers in the Himalayas. That was a heady time for climate change, all eyes were on the Copenhagen climate summit and there I was, researching a story that went totally against the prevailing tide. Believe me it was tough, very tough to even conceive a story that would question the claims of that `holy cow’ of climate change, the IPCC.

Glaciers in the Himalayas are mostly at high altitudes usually accessible after a very hard to trek so only a dozen or so have been extensively studied. / Credit: Pallava Bagla

I had heard subdued murmurs since 2007 that IPCC’s Himalayan glacier claim was absurd, but like glaciers, glaciologists also move slowly in publishing their results and it was an explosive Indian government report that gave me the right peg on which to hang the story that I had been researching for almost two years!

In 2009, India's then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh released a study on Himalayan glaciers that suggested that they may not be melting as much due to global warming as it was widely feared. Ramesh accused the IPCC of being "alarmist" in an article that I wrote for Science, saying, “We don’t need to write the epitaph for the glaciers, but we need a concentrated scientific and policy focus on the Himalayan ecosystem since the truth is incredibly complex.”

Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, dismissed the Indian government report, prepared by seasoned glaciologist V. K. Raina, as "voodoo science" and said the IPCC was a "sober body" whose work was verified by governments. Subsequently as part of the major reform process the IPCC `strengthened’ its procedures and was even subjected to an extended probe by the Inter Academy Council from Netherlands.

A sadhu or holy man offers prayer to the river goddess Ganga. The Ganges river is India’s holiest river and originates in the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas. More than a billion people live in the alluvial plains of the Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra rivers who would be drastically affected if the glaciers were to disappear altogether. / Credit: Pallava Bagla

It was not easy and as a journalist I was attacked for what I had written. Richard Stone, then Asia Editor for Science said in 2010, “In the weeks that followed, Pallava’s coverage did indeed draw criticism. IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri expressed ‘disappointment,’ while far less polite remarks came from scientists who seemed to believe that the IPCC report was sacrosanct. Pallava has said that all of his skills as a journalist were tested, but in fact he never flinched.”

As a mark of recognition the story fetched me what some dub the “Oscar of Science Journalism,” the prestigious Perlman Award for 2010 given by the highly regarded American Geophysical Union (AGU). The selection committee applauded my articles for addressing “a very serious issue in the earth sciences. [Bagla’s] articles serve as a reminder to journalists to question sources, to think harder about the agendas and ideas of those people about whom they are reporting, and to stop the steamroller of opinions or ideas when the facts just don't back them up. Although Bagla's articles reveal embarrassing foibles of scientists, ultimately they also illustrate science's ability to self-correct."

I was honoured for two articles. “No sign yet of Himalayan meltdown, Indian report finds,” published in Science, which explored the dissent among glaciologists about a prediction that Himalayan glaciers would imminently disappear. The other was, “Himalayan glaciers melting deadline ‘a mistake,’” published by BBC News, which investigated the possibility that the controversial prediction resulted from a typographical error.

Yet all was not lost as there is a huge silver lining in all this heartburn. Less than 10 weeks after I wrote about the exaggerated melt rate in 2009, the IPCC formally expressed its now famous—and until this week only—‘regret.’ Now five years later it has finally accepted that it made an ‘erroneous’ assertion. All internal procedures failed at IPCC and it was left to a journalist to show a mirror to this august body of 2,500 of the world’s best climate scientists. Self-correction is such an important part of practicing good science. Science journalists can occasionally contribute to strengthening the scientific process. This is a unique case when science and science journalism both triumphed.

A version of this op-ed orginally appeared at NDTV.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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