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Op-ed: Himalayan glacier error was 'really serious', admits climate panel

Amidst the doomsday scenario presented by the United Nations panel on climate change, there is one silver lining. 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 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had in 2007 asserted that the glaciers in the high Himalayas, also called the "third pole," would disappear by 2035.

Now, in its latest report released in Yokohama, Japan on Monday, March 31, it said, "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 prediction that the Himalayan glaciers would melt in another 21 years, to acknowledging that they will be around for much longer than our lifetimes. I am not a climate change denialist, but am certainly against the trumpeting of exaggerated claims made only on the basis of extrapolation of mathematical models.
 
The 2007 error, which has come to be known as the 'Himalayan Blunder or Glacier-gate,' has badly tarnished the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC, which has 2500 of the world's best climate scientists. Now, Chris Field, the lead scientist for yesterday's report acknowledges that the Himalayan glacier error was "really serious".
 
According to the French news agency, Agence France Presse or AFP, in the massive Fifth Assessment Report on climate impacts the IPCC said Himalayan glaciers would shrink by 45 per cent by 2100, if the Earth's average surface temperature rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius.

In a far warmer scenario of a 3.7 degree C rise in temperature, the reduction would be 68 per cent. Field says "we've tried to double check and triple check and quadruple check everything in this report."

For its 2007 assessment, the IPCC had relied on unpublished grey literature to assert, that Himalayan glaciers "are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood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."

In 2009, I began an investigation into the UN panel's claims 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 even to research a story that challenged the claims of that "holy cow" of climate change, the IPCC, was tough.

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 provided a peg to hang the story I had been researching for almost two years, on.

In 2009, then India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh released a study on Himalayan glaciers that suggested that they may be not melting as much due to global warming as it was widely feared. Jairam accused the IPCC of being "alarmist" and he told Science, "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." 



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

The story fetched me what some call the Oscar of Science Journalism, the prestigious Perlman Award for 2010 given by the highly regarded American Geophysical Union (AGU).

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 the prediction that Himalayan glaciers would disappear soon. And "Himalayan glaciers melting deadline 'a mistake,' published by BBC News, that investigated the possibility that the controversial prediction resulted from a typographical error.



I was attacked too 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."

Less than 10 weeks after I wrote about the exaggerated melt rate in 2009, the IPCC formally offered its now famous and till date only
"regret".

Now, five years later it has finally accepted that it had made an "erroneous" assertion. 
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