20 January 2010

How the Murdoch press got it wrong on the Himalayan big melt

Published in Crikey, 20 January 2010

by Damien Lawson and David Spratt

Drawing on a January 13 New Scientist story by Fred Pearce reporting on a debate among glaciologists about the IPCC's claim, The Times (UK) and subsequently The Australian and other Murdoch papers have tried to shift from a debate about timing to a questioning of global warming.

Opposition leader Tony Abbot has now used the reporting to attack Labor's climate policies and again questioned the need for climate action.

While there is unequivocal peer-reviewed science on global warming and its impact on the glacial melt in the Himalayan region, the IPCC left itself open to attack by basing its time-frame for a major loss of the glacial ice sheets on a previous New Scientist reporting of "speculative" statements by an Indian scientist.

There is much to criticise in the IPCC's 2007 report, in particular its low predictions of sea level rise this century, for example, for the report is based on old science (pre-2005) and is too conservative in its predictions of the timing and extent of many climate impacts. Hence the need for updates such as the Copenhagen climate science congress in March 2009.

But instead of examining these problems, The Australian and The Times have chosen to focus on one unsubstantiated prediction contained in the report to throw into question concerns about the Himalayan big melt and climate change more generally. This is despite the unequivocal evidence of substantial glacial loss and warming in the Himalayan-Tibetan region.

Glacial retreat on the Himalayas/Tibetan Plateau is well documented from satellite observations and aerial photography. Glaciers around the world are melting and thinning at an increasing rate, according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service. Himalayan glaciers have been retreating more rapidly than glaciers elsewhere and has intensified in the past 10 years.

For example, the Imja glacier retreated at an average rate of 42 metres per year from 1962–2000, but 74 metres per year 2001–2006. A study of 612 glaciers in China between 1950 and 1970 found that 53% were retreating. After 1990, 95% of these glaciers were measured to be retreating.

Last year, we compiled a report for Friends of the Earth Australia, which reviewed the climate impacts in the Hmalayas. While it included a reference to the IPCC claim, it also outlined a substantial body of evidence on warming and glacial melt that is still valid. It also examined the catastrophic impact on the Asian region of substantial glacial melt, in particular the threat to the water security of over a billion people. You can download the report: Highstakes: climate change, the Himalayas, Asia and Australia.

As climate policy analyst Joseph Romm said this week: "Good news: The Himalayan glaciers will probably endure past 2035. Bad news: If we don't reverse our emissions trend soon, their disappearance is likely to become irreversible before then." His blog entry is worth reading in full.

The "best" promises put on the table (but not legislated) at Copenhagen last December would produce a 3.9 degree Celsius global average warming by 2100. Over the Himalayas, that is likely to be amplified to a range of 8–12 degrees of warming. In mountain areas, the snow line on average retreats 160 metres for each 1 degree rise.

That means by the end of the century the snow/ice/glacier line will have retreated two kilometres up the mountains. Two kilometres!! And that is a catastrophe beyond words for the more than a billion people in Asia who rely on meltwater from the Himalayas in the dry season.

Predictions about the timing of climate-change impacts are the most imprecise of the many aspects of climate science. Ice sheet dynamics are particularly difficult. The loss of the Arctic sea ice, for example, is occurring 70 years earlier than IPCC predictions.

So while there is no doubt the IPCC got it wrong when it gave so much weight to this reference, we should not let a debate about timing undermine our acceptance of the fundamental threat of the loss of the Asian glaciers.