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 science.
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 away.
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 retreat.
The story 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 reached.
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 resisted calls 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 basis.
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.”