Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 22:53 | SYDNEY
Friday 24 Sep 2021 | 22:53 | SYDNEY

Glaciers have no political agenda

1 February 2010 09:34

Much has been made recently of the IPCC's unsubstantiated prediction that Himalayan glaciers will disappear by the year 2035.

I referred to this claim in my recent Lowy Paper, 'The Mekong: River Under Threat', published in November 2009, which was essentially concerned with dams on the Mekong but dealt briefly with climate change. In relation to the 2035 date I observed that 'this estimate may be excessively pessimistic', going on to say that 'the fact of the glaciers declining size cannot be disputed'.

In the various press reports seizing on the IPCC's error there have also been suggestions that what was involved was a transposition of digits, so that what had really been predicted was the suggestion the Himalayan glaciers would all be gone by 2350.

The person to whom the 2035 claim was linked, Indian glaciologist Professor Syed Iqbai Husnain, has now stated that he never made such a prediction. Instead, he says, as reported by Bloomberg, 'I had simply told the New Scientist in an interview that the mass of the glaciers will decline in 40 years...The date (2035) was their invention. I was misquoted in the report.'

Several points need to be made. First and foremost is the fact that a very large number of well-regarded scientists and organisations are unequivocal in their statements that the Himalayan glaciers are, indeed, retreating. There is a very much smaller number who reject this claim.

I referred in a footnote in my paper to a statement sourced to the Chinese Academy of Sciences that glaciers feeding the Mekong were retreating at a rate of 8% a year. This assessment is based on the work of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, which has been monitoring 600 Himalayan glaciers. In the period 1990-2005, 95% of the glaciers monitored by this group are retreating.

Absent from commentary on this issue in Australia, and here I include myself, has been any coverage, so far as I am aware, of the views of one of the best-known American glaciologists, Professor Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University's School of Earth Sciences. That is until ABC's Radio National Breakfast Program on 29 January.

Both in his observations to Fran Kelly on Radio National and in commentary that is readily accessible on the web, Professor Thompson is unequivocal in his view that most of the glaciers that have been studied in the Himalayas are retreating and that this reflects climate change. He also stated on Radio National that the 'rate of retreat of the glaciers is accelerating'.

Separately, in a conference call with journalists reported in The Guardian of 20 January, Thompson would not be drawn into making specific predictions on the future of the Himalayan glaciers. He said only about 800 of the 46,000 glaciers in the Himalayas are being monitored by scientists. Data from those under observation suggests that 95% of glaciers are in retreat, but it is still unclear how much mass the glaciers are losing without knowing the depth of the affected places. Scientists still do not have enough of that data, he said.

It was also unclear that Himalayan glaciers were thinning at a faster pace than in other parts of the world.

So, a highly respected glaciologist appears to have no doubt about the fact of retreat but he will not be drawn on making a prediction about the speed with which this is taking place. He also is quoted in several reports as making what surely is a very wise comment, and one that has been sadly lacking in much recent discussion. 'Glaciers,' he says, 'have no political agenda.'

All in all, Lonnie Thompson's views inject a degree of science and good sense into a debate in which such characteristics have been sadly lacking.

Photo by Flickr user bobwitlox, used under a Creative Commons license.