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"Glacier gate" How the Murdoch press have got it wrong on the Himalayan big melt

Climate Action Centre Briefing Note, 20 January 2010

Recently, the Murdoch press have continued their campaign of climate denial and delay by giving front-page prominence to a five-day-old story attacking the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predictions of glacial melt in the Himalayan-Tibetan ranges by 2035.

Drawing on a 13 January New Scientist story by Fred Pearce reporting on a debate amongst 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 their 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 deep 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 last 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 per cent were retreating. After 1990, 95 per cent of these glaciers were measured to be retreating.

Last year, we compiled a report for Friends of the Earth Australia that reviewed the climate impacts in Australia. 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.

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 seventy 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.

Damien Lawson and David Spratt


Write letters to The Australian: letters [ AT ]

Here is a response we got published today on The Australia's letters page.

Some recent media reports on climate change and the Himalayas

Signs of change in the Himalayas as Copenhagen summit begin
John Vidal, Guardian, 6 December 2009

The Tragedy of the Himalayas
Bryan Walsh, Time, 7 December 2009

Vanishing glaciers jolt smokestack China
Michael Sheridan, The Sunday Times, 8 November 2009

Himalayan sherpas bugged by the sight of house flies at 5,000m
John Vidal, Guardian, 12 October 2009

Tibet most harmed by global warming
Wang Huazhong, China Daily, 7 May 2009

Black soot and the survival of Tibetan glaciers
James Hansen, GISS brief, December 2009


Average minimum temperatures along Peru's north coast increased 3.5 o F (2 o C) from the 1960s to 2000. The temperature in the high plateau region in extreme southeastern Peru has also risen 3.5 o F (2 o C). In the Andes mountains, the edge of the Qori Kalis glacier was retreating 13 ft (4.0 m) annually between 1963 and 1978. By 1995, the rate had stepped up to 99 ft (30.1 m) per year. The combination of rising levels of carbon dioxide and increasing deforestation could reduce biodiversity in the tropical forests of Northern South America.

A warming process in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca – the Andean country’s most important glacier system – is causing ice and snow to melt at an accelerated rate, jeopardizing ecosystems, water supplies and the safety of Peruvians in the region, the country’s main water authority reiterated this week.

The new century may bring hundreds or even thousands of plant and animal extinctions to the Andes Mountains of Peru according to new research by Florida Institute of Technology Paleo-Ecologist Mark Bush. The Andes region of Peru is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet. "According to the International Panel on Climate Change, we can expect a minimum of one to two degrees Celsius increase in temperature in the Andes by the end of this century," Bush said.

Farmers in Cusco are reporting irregular rains and intense heat. This is affecting their potato and corn crops: in recent years, production has fallen by at least half. Livestock farmers also report that new diseases are affecting their animals.

Local residents in rural Piura report that changing rainfall patterns are damaging their mango and cassava crops. They also have noticed public’s health problems, specifically the emergence of diseases such as dengue fever (spread my mosquitos) and leishmaniasis (spread by sand fleas).
Water levels on the world’s highest navigable lake have dropped 81 cm (2.6 ft) in just seven months, since April this year, according to the Binational Lake Titicaca Authority. Climate change continues to wreck havoc in Peru’s southern Altiplano, where the arrival of freezing temperatures since March — almost three months earlier than usual — have killed at least 20,000 alpaca, reported Peru’s National Agriculture and Sanitation Service.

Government figures for Amazonian deforestation suggest 150,000 hectares were cut down in Peru in 2005, although other organisations put the average figure in recent years higher at around 250,000 hectares annually. This is much less than Brazil for example, which released figures last week showing an annual rate of nearly 12 million hectares. Now countries in South America and seeking international funds to preserve their rainforests.

Fires and climate change are having a dramatic impact on the Amazon. Recent studies suggest that the Amazon rainforest may be losing its ability to stay green all year long as forest degradation and drought make it dangerously flammable.

New research (2007) confirms that avoiding deforestation can play a key role in reducing future greenhouse gas concentrations. Scientists report in the journal Science that tropical deforestation releases 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon each year into the atmosphere. Reducing deforestation is just one of a portfolio of mitigation options needed to reduce concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

A case for anthropogenic climate change is a hard one to refute as we humans have changed the surface of our planet so significantly and impacted so profoundly that any denial is almost almost criminal and totally negligence.