A Costly Mistake: UN Climate Experts Under Fire for Glacier Melt Error

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In its 2007 report on climate change, the United Nations included a prediction that the Himalayan glaciers had a high probability of melting by 2035 -- a forecast that came as an unpleasant surprise for many. But the forecast is wrong and the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change is be criticized heavily for its methods.

If they had only listened to Georg Kaser, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would have been spared deep embarrassment. The glacier specialist from the University of Innsbruck was one of the lead authors of the first part of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning body's 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, or AR4. The second part of the paper stated that the probability of Himalayan glaciers "disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high."

"This date -- 2035 -- is almost completely absurd," Kaser told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "No one could take that number seriously." The glacier ice is so thick that it could not melt in the specified time period. To do so global warming would need to be two or three times higher than currently expected. But at current rates, this is a physical impossibility.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: How Quickly Are Himalayan Glaciers Really Melting?

'Too Late to Make any Corrections'

Kaser is an experienced glaciologist and a leading authority in his field. Between 2007 and 2009 he was the president of the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences. But somehow his warning was not heeded. "It was after the official peer review process, shortly before the printing," Kaser says. "It was probably too late to make any corrections." It seems probable that internal systems within the IPCC are at fault and in an upcoming edition of the magazine, Science, Kaser and three colleagues will explain how this embarrassing sloppiness in research actually came about.

Meanwhile, leaders in the field are now suggesting that the IPCC's structure be reviewed -- mainly because information breakdowns, such as the one about the melting Himalayan glaciers, endanger trust in the field. Climate science has a solid foundation but critics are quick to jump on any contentious issues.

"On the whole, the documents are well done," explains Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Britain's Cambridge University. "But (the date) 2035 is completely implausible." Dowdeswell calls the error "unfortunate" and says that the mistake "somehow slipped through the net."

Calls for Review of the IPCC's Structure

After all the fuss about the content of e-mails stolen last year from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, this new slip-up just poisons climate science's reputation further. "This is an embarrassing mistake that should not have been allowed to happen," Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research based near Berlin, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It shows that IPCC procedures need further improvement." By this he means internal reforms: "One must consider the structure of the panel and the way the working groups are organized," Schellnhuber says.

The IPCC doesn't actually undertake any research itself -- it simply gathers the available information on climate change. And the majority of this work is done by three panels.

  • Working Group I, which, according to the IPCC's Web site, "assesses the physical scientific aspects of the climate system and climate change."

  • Working Group II, which "assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change and options for adapting to it."

  • And Working Group III, which "assesses options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing activities that remove them from the atmosphere."

IPCC Recycling Pseudo-Scientific Information

Each working group publishes its own reports, and together they make up the "Assessment Report". Because the error was published in the second part of AR4, it is clear that Working Group II is responsible for the wrong date about the Himalayan glaciers. As the Sunday Times in the UK reported, the authors of the mistaken case study had not relied upon work in peer-reviewed journals for the information. Instead, it seems they had based the sentence on a report by the environmental group WWF that was, in turn, based on a 1999 article in the mainstream magazine New Scientist.

That the IPCC is recycling information from what is basically pseudo-scientific literature has to do with the explicit wishes of many developing countries, as expressed when the IPCC was founded. In their opinion this was the only way to deal with the dominance of Western research in the field.

One can also see that fear -- of industrialized nations having too much influence on the IPCC -- in the composition of the IPCC's teams of authors. Representatives from the region actually drafted the chapters about their own areas. Therefore, one might speculate that, in one case or another, regional interests have taken precedence over the competence of the research.

Recruiting Process Requires Greater Quality Control

Kaser told French news agency AFP that, "for reasons I do not know," the people working on the Asia chapter, whose countries would be most affected by the melting Himalayan glaciers, "did not react." Kaser also pointed to "a kind of amateurism" among experts from the region who were in charge of the chapter. Kaser believes that the expert glaciologists had been focused on the first, and more purely scientific, part of the paper prepared by Working Group I, and the second part was left to scientists from other fields. "They might have been good hydrologists or botanists, but they were without any knowledge in glaciology," he said.

Schellnhuber simply says that "the recruiting process of leading authors needs stricter quality control."

According to current schedules, the IPCC is slated to publish its fifth assessment report in 2014. At a meeting in Bali last October participating nations had come to an agreement as to the structure of the three working groups -- which is why major changes in the way these groups work seems unlikely.

"I find the rules of the game clear and good. But they need to be followed to the letter," Kaser notes. If it was up to Schellnhuber there would be tougher criteria applied to the information used to compile the IPCC reports. "Perhaps one should be taking a much more critical view of second- or third-tier specialist magazines," Schellnhuber says.

Kaser does not necessarily agree. "I'm not sure there's much use in that. Because then clean data might also not be used anymore either. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater," he says. Maybe there is a comparatively easy way to increase the quality control, he suggests. "The community of scientists involved in this need to carefully proof the reports issued by the Working Groups II and III -- and not just focus on the first part (of the report)," he argues.

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