UN climate report riddled with errors on glaciers (Update)

January 20, 2010
This Feb. 1, 2005 file photo shows an aerial view of the Siachen Glacier, which traverses the Himalayan region dividing India and Pakistan, about 750 kilometers (469 miles) northwest of Jammu, India. A U.N. warning that Himalayan glaciers were melting faster than any other place in the world and may be gone by 2035 was not backed up by science, U.N. climate experts said Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010, an admission that could energize climate change critics. (AP Photo/Channi Anand, file)

(AP) -- Five glaring errors were discovered in one paragraph of the world's most authoritative report on global warming, forcing the Nobel Prize-winning panel of climate scientists who wrote it to apologize and promise to be more careful.

The errors are in a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-affiliated body. All the mistakes appear in a subsection that suggests glaciers in the Himalayas could melt away by the year 2035 - hundreds of years earlier than the data actually indicates. The year 2350 apparently was transposed as 2035.

The climate panel and even the scientist who publicized the errors said they are not significant in comparison to the entire report, nor were they intentional. And they do not negate the fact that worldwide, glaciers are melting faster than ever.

But the mistakes open the door for more attacks from climate change skeptics.

"The credibility of the IPCC depends on the thoroughness with which its procedures are adhered to," Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, told The Associated Press in an e-mail. "The procedures have been violated in this case. That must not be allowed to happen again because the credibility of climate change policy can only be based on credible science."

The incident follows a furor late last year over the release of stolen e-mails in which climate scientists talked about suppressing data and freezing out skeptics of global warming. And on top of that, an intense cold spell has some people questioning whether global warming exists.

In a statement, the climate change panel expressed regret over what it called "poorly substantiated estimates" about the Himalayan glaciers.

"The IPCC has established a reputation as a real gold standard in assessment; this is an unfortunate black mark," said Chris Field, a Stanford University professor who in 2008 took over as head of this part of the IPCC research. "None of the experts picked up on the fact that these were poorly substantiated numbers. From my perspective, that's an area where we have an opportunity to do much better."

Patrick Michaels, a global warming skeptic and scholar at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, called on the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, to resign, adding: "I'd like to know how such an absurd statement made it through the review process. It is obviously wrong."

However, a number of scientists, including some critics of the IPCC, said the mistakes do not invalidate the main conclusion that global warming is without a doubt man-made and a threat.

The mistakes were found not by skeptics like Michaels, but by a few of the scientists themselves, including one who is an IPCC co-author.

The report in question is the second of four issued by the IPCC in 2007 on global warming. This 838-page document had chapters on each continent. The errors were in a half-page section of the Asia chapter. The section got it wrong as to how fast the thousands of glaciers in the Himalayas are melting, scientists said.

"It is a very shoddily written section," said Graham Cogley, a professor of geography and glaciers at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, who brought the error to everyone's attention. "It wasn't copy-edited properly."

Cogley, who wrote a letter about the problems to Science magazine that was published online Wednesday, cited these mistakes:

- The paragraph starts, "Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world." Cogley and Michael Zemp of the World Glacier Monitoring System said Himalayan glaciers are melting at about the same rate as other glaciers.

- It says that if the Earth continues to warm, the "likelihood of them disappearing by the 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high." Nowhere in peer-reviewed science literature is 2035 mentioned. However, there is a study from Russia that says glaciers could come close to disappearing by 2350. Probably the numbers in the date were transposed, Cogley said.

- The paragraph says: "Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 square kilometers by the year 2035." Cogley said there are only 33,000 square kilometers of glaciers in the Himalayas.

- The entire paragraph is attributed to the World Wildlife Fund, when only one sentence came from the WWF, Cogley said. And further, the IPCC likes to brag that it is based on peer-reviewed science, not advocacy group reports. Cogley said the WWF cited the popular science press as its source.

- A table says that between 1845 and 1965, the Pindari Glacier shrank by 2,840 meters. Then comes a math mistake: It says that's a rate of 135.2 meters a year, when it really is only 23.5 meters a year.

Still, Cogley said: "I'm convinced that the great bulk of the work reported in the IPCC volumes was trustworthy and is trustworthy now as it was before the detection of this mistake." He credited Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon with telling him about the errors.

However, Colorado University environmental science and policy professor Roger Pielke Jr. said the errors point to a "systematic breakdown in IPCC procedures," and that means there could be more mistakes.

A number of scientists pointed out that at the end of the day, no one is disputing the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking.

"What is happening now is comparable with the Titanic sinking more slowly than expected," de Boer said in his e-mail. "But that does not alter the inevitable consequences, unless rigorous action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is taken."


On the Net:

The IPCC statement: http://tinyurl.com/ipccglaciers

Cogley's letter in Science: http://tinyurl.com/cogleysci

Explore further: In new row, UN climate body to probe Himalayan glacier forecast


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3.4 / 5 (11) Jan 20, 2010
Here's a formula even non-scientists ought to understand perfectly by now:

4 / 5 (8) Jan 20, 2010
A very poor job of quality control by the IPCC. I do hope they will take this opportunity to review their findings. While they are working on their next draft, the older draft should be farmed out to critics to have them formally comment. I find that when I want a good paper I send it to the harshest critics of my work. I usually get back constructive insight (even if it laced with vitriol a times). ;-) If they are wrong I don't have to take their suggestions, but I do incorporate a response into the paper. I find that keeps me alert to what I might have missed. It seems to me that the IPCC rushed to publication instead of having independent reviewers (and even harsh critics look at he work). Of course, criticism is something that the UN doesn't like.
3.5 / 5 (8) Jan 20, 2010
Untrue. The IPCC did have independent reviewers. They ignored them and went ahead anyway. They were warned that the glacial information was wrong before they published.

For the TAR (Third Annual Report) of the IPCC, a few of the reviewers wrote scathing denunciations of the report, one of them even using the words and phrases "fraud", "fraudulent", "exaggerated", "models are particularly lacking", "weather balloon measurements do not show a warming for 21 years", "influence from emissions of greenhouse gases is yet to be established", "absurd figures", "lack of both [precision and consistency]", "flawed", "exaggeration factor of about 6" and the like to describe the contents of certain of the chapters of that report.

Those negative reports were swept under the carpet and the report published anyway. That is one of the things that made Climategate so interesting. The evidence for that negative response of independent scientists became more wide public knowledge for the first time.
3 / 5 (6) Jan 21, 2010
It is really too bad that these errors went uncorrected. I think most scientific reports have a few mistakes not caught by the authors, just like most books contain typos. But in the highly charged world of todays climate science, where there is a large body of skeptics who have already made up their mind that for one reason or another global warming is unacceptable, letting this kind of stupid mistake through the process speaks to incompetence and negligence.

Absent a very large array of targeted multi-megaton nuclear weapons, it is simply not possible that the ice sheets in the Himalayas could melt by 2035. Just back of the envelope calculations involving ice sheet width and any type of possible melting rates discount any chance they could be gone by the end of the century.

However, there is a lot of other completely independent results in this report that have nothing to do with this snafu. I would not discard all of that data from one paragraph full of mistakes.
3.9 / 5 (7) Jan 21, 2010
I, for one, would really like to see the reviewers' panel's comments for AR4 as well as all the now missing raw data.
3 / 5 (6) Jan 21, 2010
It is really too bad that these errors went uncorrected. I think most scientific reports have a few mistakes not caught by the authors, just like most books contain typos.
Unfortunately this is a core piece of the peer review process. One would have to ask, which peer reviewed this paper before it was submitted, which editor then passed the paper on, and which publisher didn't review the paper for accuracy in data prior to publication. From top to bottom, something stinks.
I would not discard all of that data from one paragraph full of mistakes.
As this publication violates many of the IPCCs own rules in regards to peer review, one must discard this report, and any work that cites this report, entirely.

That does not mean that we must discard the peer reviewed papers or data that constitutes the body of independent results contained within.
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 21, 2010
I just noticed that this piece wasn't actually peer reviewed. On reflection it seems ludicrous to throw out the baby with the bathwater just because of this snafu, can you imagine what the creationists would do when news of Piltdown man broke! We would all be back in the scientific dark ages, even without Sarah palin at the helm.
Jan 21, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
3.4 / 5 (5) Jan 23, 2010
One does not need to have the above article peer reviewed. Uncovering of errors should have been the purview of those who published the report. But, because they deliberately published in spite of warnings that the information is inaccurate it devolved upon the public to find out about this.

Fortunately, an actual climate scientist made the information public. I say, good on him. Fact is, the scientist who exposed the error to the public is an AGW believer. It was so much the better for him to do it than for a skeptic because no one listens to skeptics these days.

The saddest thing of all is that scientists are supposed to be skeptical and so many have jumped on the bandwagon. These little snafus, as published in public forums, are doing what they are supposed to do and awakening us to the fact that we are supposed to be skeptical.

If there is material that falsifies the hypothesis it needs to be reworked. If there is inaccuracy here where else might there be?
5 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2010

"The IPCC has established a reputation as a real gold standard in assessment; this is an unfortunate black mark," said Chris Field, a Stanford University professor who in 2008 took over as head of this part of the IPCC research. "None of the experts picked up on the fact that these were poorly substantiated numbers. From my perspective, that's an area where we have an opportunity to do much better."

What an elegant way of saying "sorry guys, my bad!"
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2010
.... because no one listens to skeptics these days.

Don't kid yourself, you are not a sceptic, a sceptic challenging an accepted hypothesis will present an alternative hypothesis with experiments/observations/data/analysis to back this up. You are not this, you are a denier in that you don't accept the accepted theory on any level and refuse to believe the evidence presented to you. Nit-picking, gainsaying and conspiracy theory does not a sceptic make.
Why don't you share with us your explanation why global temperatures have been increasing in industrial times, what mechanisms do you see at work and what references you have to back up your theories?
3 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2010
Not true. Of course, people with rank filtering turned on will never see it now will they? I have presented alternative data on many fronts. If people want to see it all they have to do is turn off their rank filtering. Alternatively, you can stop using sockpuppets to 1-rank posts to hide them as you are wont to do.

I am very much a skeptic. I always have been and always will be--unless I see something that cannot be explained in any other way and see valid evidence to the contrary of my position on any given subject.

The data shows it was warmer 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 years ago than it is today. Experiments and data acquisition have been done without adequate controls in places. Until that deficiency is corrected I will remain a skeptic.

By the way, the IPCC climate report contains inaccuracies--true or false?
2 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2010
What is of interest in light of your rather fallacious claim--although visitors with rank filtering turned on will not see this--is that in various threads I actually have proposed alternative hypotheses and alternative parameters for doing experiments relating to CO2 and so forth.

So, all people here have to do is turn off rank filtering and hunt up my posts in various other articles on this site. They will find a number of them if they look hard enough.

One other problem with positing alternative hypotheses here, however, is the limitation to 1000 words or less and that you cannot post using HTML or paste graphics into the posts. One can be witty and make it short and to the point. It is another matter entirely to present one's ideas and data here in full.

Certainly I could set up my own website and blog about it but, as I have repeatedly stated, I do not blog and do not spend much if any time at all at such sites.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2010
By the way, the IPCC climate report contains inaccuracies--true or false?

At this point in time the answer is most assuredly "true".
1 / 5 (1) Jan 27, 2010
One can be witty and make it short and to the point.

I see you've tried, well, half tried, on a few occasions.

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