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Carbon Brief Staff

12.07.2012 | 10:45am
ScienceOld study – same error: The Mail is still wrong about Asian glaciers
SCIENCE | July 12. 2012. 10:45
Old study – same error: The Mail is still wrong about Asian glaciers

A new piece has been published on the  Mail Online suggesting global warming isn’t happening because researchers have found some glaciers in the Karakoram mountain range are gaining some ice. If it looks suspiciously familiar, that’s because the Mail already covered the research when it came out in April.

Although the new piece reports the research pretty straight it’s had some heavy-handed editorial treatment, with a subhead claiming the finding “flies in the face of predictions of climate activitsts”. Here’s our original rebuttal of the article – and yes, the fact that the glaciers are gaining some ice still doesn’t mean glaciers aren’t losing ice overall.

The study, released in April, measured glacier mass in the Karakoram mountain range. The findings suggest that the region’s glaciers are growing slightly, and contribute to sea-level rise less than previously thought at nearly 0.05 mm per year. 

The research, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, used satellite data to assess the state of glaciers in the central Karakoram mountains between 1999 and 2008, and found that the glaciers gained ice slightly over that period. The finding confirms evidence from the late 1990s of growing glaciers in the Karakorum, but suggests that previous estimates of how much the Karakoram glaciers contribute to sea level rise have probably been too high.

The finding also echoes research published earlier this year, in the journal Nature, concluding that high Asian glaciers in the Himalayas and surrounding areas don’t appear to be losing much ice as previously thought, and are contributing a negligible amount to sea level rise. Media coverage of that study caused a bit of confusion at the time, as we noted.

The Mail Online, continuing its growing tendency to add inflammatory headlines disputing man-made climate change to quite innocuous articles, reported this as a ” New question mark over global warming” as “Scientists discover glaciers in Asian mountain range are actually getting BIGGER”.

Other media outlets take a less sensational line, such as the BBC News report: “Some Asian glaciers ‘putting on mass’“; while many of the online articles opt to headline on glaciers ‘ bucking the global warming trend‘.

Given that glaciers have long been an icon for man-made climate change, it’s unsurprising that research suggesting anything different from the accepted wisdom – that the world’s glaciers have been retreating for the last few decades – garners a lot of media attention.

Adding to the interest is the so-called ‘glaciergate‘ episode – when it came to light in 2009 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report mistakenly stated that Himalayan glaciers would have melted away by 2035, rather than 2350.

Now glaciologist Professor Jonathan Bamber, from the University of Bristol, asks whether, as the Mail Online headline seems to suggest:

“[T]here [is] a conflict between these studies and the wider body of research indicating that, worldwide, glaciers have been receding for several decades [.]”

Bamber, writing on the Guardian website, discusses the reasons why these two studies do not make him doubt glaciers’ global response to warming. Considering the body of peer-reviewed research, he concludes that the world’s glaciers “are still shrinking – and rapidly”.

So why don’t these two studies mean we should question global warming, as the Mail Online would have us believe?

Studies too short to give climate trend

For a start Bamber points out:

“Both studies cover a relatively short period of time: eight to nine years, over roughly the last decade […] But in atmospheric sciences, trends in climate are generally determined from records that span at least 30.”

Meanwhile, Bamber says, research spanning longer time periods and a global range tells a different story:

“The combined records indicate that most, but not all, glacier systems have been losing mass for at least the last four decades, and that the rate of loss has been accelerating since the 1990s for key regions including Patagonia, the Canadian Arctic, Alaska and, most important of all for sea-level rise, from the great ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland.”

Karakoram glaciers ‘anomalous compared with global average’

So, as Bamber points out, it is important to place the two studies “in the context of global changes to land and sea ice”. Professor Graham Cogley, a glaciologist at Trent University in Canada, who was not involved in the study and offers a commentary on the paper’s findings in a Nature Geoscience News and Views article accompanying the paper, does just that. He says, based on his own research:

“Global average glacier mass balance is unequivocally negative”

He adds:

“[T]he mass balance of Karakoram glaciers is indeed anomalous compared with the global average.”

So the glaciers in the Karakoram and the Himalaya mountain ranges don’t represent findings about glaciers around the rest of the globe.

Sea level rise from ice sheet melt

It’s also important to note that these two papers don’t dispute that the world’s ice loss is contributing to sea level rise, which continues at an average of around 3 mm per year. The finding that some high Asian glaciers might not contribute as much to sea level rise as previously thought does not mean that concerns over future sea level rise are unfounded.

Scientists have previously calculated that ice loss from glaciers and ice caps – ice masses covering less than 50 000 km² of land area – was the biggest contributor to sea level rise over the 20th Century, and is expected to remain an important factor in the 21st Century. But it is ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, home to nearly all of the world’s ice, that is expected to be the dominant contributor to sea level rise over the 21st Century.

Bamber suggests although there are regional variations in glacier behaviour:

“Such variability should not, however, distract from the broader and more important story unfolding […] Most glaciologists believe we are witnessing unprecedented changes to land and sea ice. The burning question is not if, but how fast, land and sea ice will disappear, and what we can do to mitigate and adapt to these changes.”

So who do you believe – glaciologists or the Mail Online’s headline editors?

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