Glaciergate - a year on
The Glaciergate controversy
hit the headlines a year ago this week when it was revealed the
claim in the influential IPCC report that the great glaciers of the
Himalayas would melt by 2035 was untrue.
The media storm led to calls for Dr Rajenda Pachauri, the
chairman of the IPCC to resign, and for an extensive review of the
panel's use of "grey literature" alongside peer reviewed
However, 12 months after the story dominated the climate change
debate, and after an extensive review, there have been no further
substantial errors found in the IPCC report and Dr Pachauri remains
in post. Like the December snow, the controversy has melted
So, with the benefit of hindsight, what was Glaciergate really
about? The panel's Fourth Assessment
Report (AR4) in 2007 included a prediction that Himalayan
glaciers could be all but melted by 2035, which is now acknowledged
to be a miscalculation of about 300 years.
The credibility and methodology of the UN organisation was under
severe scrutiny when it transpired the mistaken claim was not based
on peer-reviewed scientific literature, but instead from a WWF report about the impacts of glacier
first appeared in a Sunday Times article by Jonathan Leake and
Christ Hastings. It broke just two months after the hacking of
emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East
Anglia in what became known as "Climategate" and renewed pressure
on the scientific and political community to review claims that the
science of climate change was settled, or that consensus had been
Pachauri did issue an apology but his role in the affair remained
controversial. Influential figures convinced of climate change
called for his resignation, including John Sauven of Greenpeace and
the Guardian journalist George Monbiot.
Research by prominent Indian glaciologist V K Raina indicating
Himalayan glaciers would require more than 300 years to melt
substantially had been published two months before the story broke.
Raina's study was endorsed by the Indian government but Pachauri
dismissed the research as "voodoo science".
He said: "I don't know why the minister is supporting this
unsubstantiated research. It is an extremely arrogant statement."
However, it emerged shortly afterwards that the IPCC's own report
contained the mistaken 30-year forecast. Despite this, Pachauri
for his resignation.
The IPCC subsequently launched a review into the events that lead
up to the publication of the error. The source of the false claim
was traced back to a1999 interview with another Indian
glaciologist, Syed Hasnain, by environment journalist Fred Pearce
in the New Scientist. The article discussed research that was
unpublished and un-reviewed at the time, and reported it on that
However, in a 2005 report the WWF then
quoted Hasnain without verification and this was in turn quoted
without verification by the IPCC in 2007. When asked Hasnain could
not explain where he had sourced his prediction - the 2035 date was
not evident from the research.
Professor Graham Cogley, a glaciologist at Ontario Trent
University, was among the first scientists to sound the alarm over
the mistake. He believed that the 2035 claim was based on a
misreading of a 1996 UNESCO report that cited 2350 as the date
which would witness large-scale glacial melt. The Fourth Assessment
Report, a 938-page document, has subsequently been scanned
rigorously for errors, but the Himalayan glaciers mistake remains
the only substantial one.
However, the sloppy practice has made the incident embarrassing to
the organisation. The August 2010 Inter Academy Council review of
the IPCC concluded the fault lay with inadequate application of
existing IPCC review procedures: "In the case of the incorrect
projection of the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers, for
example, some of the review comments were not adequately considered
and the justifications were not completely explained.
"Although a few errors are likely to be missed in any review
process, stronger enforcement of existing IPCC procedures by the
Review Editors could minimize their number."
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