Climate

Memo to IPCC: Please reanalyze ALL of your conclusions about melting ice and sea level rise

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.

Middle Rongbuk GlacierMEMO TO IPCC:  If you are going to review the apparently mistaken claim in your 2007 report that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 — please review all of the latest scientific literature and observations on that subject AND please update your equally outdated sea level rise projections.

MEMO TO MEDIA:  It isn’t news that the 2007 projections by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are not accurate.  The real news is that the 99% of their “mistakes” are UNDERestimates of likely impacts.   Indeed, they lowballed the sea level rise projections so badly that even the Bush administration rejected them within a year (see “US Geological Survey stunner: Sea-level rise in 2100 will likely “substantially exceed” IPCC projections).

Back to the news of the day.  Predictably, the anti-science crowd is crowing about what looks to be an inconsequential mistake in the 2007 IPCC report.  In a piece absurdly headlined, “World misled over Himalayan glacier meltdown,” the UK’s Times online writes:

A WARNING that climate change will melt most of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 is likely to be retracted after a series of scientific blunders by the United Nations body that issued it.

Note to Times Online, you might want to read your own story from two months ago, “Vanishing glaciers jolt smokestack China (discussed below), the source of the above photo.

The UK Express screed, “The New Climate Change Scandal,” claims “FRESH doubts were cast over controversial global warming theories yesterday after a major climate change argument was discredited.”

It does look like the IPCC used some out-of-date projections for a pretty minor piece of the report, but of course the IPCC basically froze all scientific inputs to its Fourth Assessment Report around 2005, so they missed the dramatic acceleration in melting of the Arctic sea ice, the inland glaciers, and the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland.  Thus it is absolutely crucial that — if the IPCC re-examines the issue of glacial melt in the Himalayans — that it re-examine the entire issue based on the staggering new observational data in the scientific literature:

The literature and data also show that even in the Himalayas, melting is occurring remarkably fast.  My post Another climate impact comes faster than predicted: Himalayan glaciers “decapitated” discussed a  major study by leading international cryosphere scientists, including American’s own rock ice star, Lonnie Thompson,”Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources” (subs. req’d).  It revealed the unprecedent  melting of the Naimona’nyi Glacier in the Himalaya (Tibet) and concluded ominously:

If Naimona’nyi is characteristic of other glaciers in the region, alpine glacier meltwater surpluses are likely to shrink much faster than currently predicted with substantial consequences for approximately half a billion people.

The point is — even if the IPCC made an incorrect statement in 2007 based on out-of-date and or even un-peer-reviewed sources, since then we have an overabundance of new data that all glaciers, including those in the Himalayas, are at grave risk.  So it would be a serious mistake by the IPCC not to review all of the latest scientific data in making any change to its assessment.

Indeed, it’s good news the Himalayan glaciers probably won’t be gone by 2035After all, the anti-science crowd’s suicidally effective disinformation campaign has made it too late for humanity to have a very significant impact on the climate of 2035.  So, ironically, we may still have time to save the Himalayas — if we reverse our current emissions path.  If not, the Himalayan glaciers are likely to be unsavable well before 2035.

Also, ironically, the Times Online itself reported in November:

AS an expedition from Chinese state television worked its way across the remote Tibetan plateau earlier this year, the explorers were amazed by what they found.

The plateau has been called the world’s third largest ice store after the North and South Poles. Yet according to Chinese scientists, the “third pole” is warming up faster than anywhere else on earth.

The TV team found bare rock where glaciers had retreated. Lakes had dried up. Lush grassland had turned to desert. The livestock was dead, the farmers impoverished.

They brought back a visual lesson in global warming so stark that censors allowed the programme makers to broadcast a frank expos©….

Last month, for example, researchers discovered that levels of black carbon in the ice core of the Tibetan plateau had soared since the 1990s because of smokestack industries and coal fires in millions of homes.

The plateau’s 36,000 glaciers, which once extended for 18,000 square miles, could vanish before mid-century if present rates of warming persist. More than 80% of them are in retreat. The overall area has shrunk by 4.5% in the past 20 years.

Most ominous of all, in the area that Chinese know as Sanjiangyuan, where three mighty rivers rise “” the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Mekong “” the headwaters run shallow and weak, threatening the water supplies for hundreds of millions of people.

There were 4,077 lakes and now 3,000 of them have disappeared,” said Xin Hongyuan, a geologist in Qinghai, which shares the huge expanse of plateau with the Tibet autonomous region and the provinces of Sichuan and Gansu.”The snow is thawing and the snowline has risen from 4,600 metres to 5,300 metres. The Jianggendiru glacier, which is the main water supply of the Yangtze, has been degenerating fast since 1970, and when the glaciers shrink there will be a water crisis in the Yellow and Yangtze rivers.”

So, yes, IPCC, please do respond to the anti-science crowd by updating your out-of-date discussion of melting ice.  And that, of course, means updating your out of date discussion of sea level rise based on multiple recent studies:

You might contemplate including this figure in your update:

http://climateprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/SLR-PNAS-pic.gif

But if you’re just going to review the provenance of this one questionable number, then you are not providing a useful service — once again (see “Has the IPCC rendered itself irrelevant?“)

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29 Responses to Memo to IPCC: Please reanalyze ALL of your conclusions about melting ice and sea level rise

  1. carrot eater says:

    You can emphasize the big picture, but one should also address the specific flaw. It is just weird that a reference to a non-peer reviewed work ended up in there. In all that work, I suppose it’s good that only one flaw like this has been found, but it still really should have been caught at the time.

    In a positive light, we do see that errors are acknowledged and fixed when actual errors are found.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    Excellent point about updating everything, and not just the glacier date, Joe.

    Also, I want to point out a fundamental point in something you said right at the top: “Good news: The Himalayan glaciers will probably endure past 2035.” For those of us concerned about CC, this truly is good news. In blunter terms, we care more about human impacts in the future than we care about winning a debating point today. This is one of those not-so-minor details that’s often lost in the hyper-polarized online food fight over CC.

  3. Leif says:

    Given the very large melt component of soot on China’s glaciers perhaps a bit of “breathing space” is available if China made a serious clean air policy. After all, even a few inches of snow over such a large expanse, can be self fulfilling. ” White” snow and ice just might be rebuild-able in the near term.

  4. dhogaza says:

    Apparently one reason – or more likely, the reason – it was missed is because the working group that referenced it in their part of the report was *not* the working group including the glaciologists.

    This probably accounts for why the 2035 claim didn’t make it into the Summary for Policy Makers, apparently.

    It’s not only the IPCC scientists that missed the reference earlier – the famed auditors who are going to save us from junk climate science (sic) missed it, too. What the hell good are they, anyway? :)

  5. Jim Torson says:

    More information on Himalayan glaciers is available in the presentation entitled “Satellite-era glacier changes in High Asia.” The availability of this was recently announced in a message posted by an assistant researcher at the University of Arizona to the CRYOLIST email list:

    Dear Cryolisters,

    Below are links to a revised presentation that was developed as background
    information for a “Black carbon aerosols in the Himalaya” press conference held
    at the 2009 AGU meeting in San Francisco. The background report herein
    represents a 17-authored revision and expansion of the previous version made
    available last month.

    Note three available formats (ppt, pptx, pdf):

    http://web.hwr.arizona.edu/~gleonard/2009Dec-FallAGU-Soot-PressConference-Backgrounder-Kargel.pdf

    http://web.hwr.arizona.edu/~gleonard/2009Dec-FallAGU-Soot-PressConference-Backgrounder-Kargel.ppt

    http://web.hwr.arizona.edu/~gleonard/2009Dec-FallAGU-Soot-PressConference-Backgrounder-Kargel.pptx

    Kind regards,
    Greg

  6. mark says:

    I may not be understanding this properly, but is it not peculiar that an expedition from Chinese state television is finding such things, when scientists with satellites do not?

  7. carrot eater says:

    dhogaza: I wonder if WG1 gets more eyeballs than WG2. I’ve read or skimmed all of WG1, but barely touched WG2.

    In any event, it’s going to get blown out of all proportion for a couple days, and the residual effect is that some people will remember there was some goof-up, and those people won’t get the big picture.

  8. Dano says:

    the famed auditors who are going to save us from junk climate science (sic) missed it, too.

    I missed that bit when running this down.

    Surely this needs to be brought up. Often.

    Best,

    D

  9. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    If I understand it correctly the 2035 figure slipped in there because there were no other estimates available. The original author of the comment was using a could be date not a will definitely be date.

    Clearly the Himalayan glaciers are in retreat, and fairly rapid at that. All the problems the IPCC report mentions are going to happen, just that the time lines are in question.

    How long does it take to build a new dam? The free dam that nature provided by the glaciers will go and we need to be ready. Unfortunately that is not the way humans do it, we will wait until millions are dying of thirst before the dam is even designed.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Dano (8) — Please do bring it up often.

    Ever oftener.

    [Seventh attempt to post this comment.]

  11. Andy says:

    The latest bad report on future sea levels. This New Scientist article discusses a recent study that concludes the Pine Island Glacier has passed a tipping point and is likely to drain enough of the West Anarctic Ice Sheet away to raise sea levels by 20cm by 2100. A total of 50cm if a nearby glacier is considered. So a total of about 2 feet of sea level rise from the WAIS by 2100 alone. A special interim IPCC report is needed to make sense of and address all the new sea level rise research IMO.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18383-major-antarctic-glacier-is-past-its-tipping-point.html

  12. Jim Torson says:

    In case it wasn’t obvious, the presentation by Kargel et al. on the University of Arizona website that I referenced above includes discussion of the “Himalayan glaciers gone by 2035” error.

    The following is a good discussion of ice in Antarctica:

    Is Antarctica Melting?
    http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/20100108_Is_Antarctica_Melting.html

  13. espiritwater says:

    This is a cute video:

    The Dirty F***ing Hippies Were Right « Dandelion Salad

    dandelionsalad.wordpress.com/2009/03/21/the/dirty-fin…-

  14. Aaron Lewis says:

    I would not be surprised to see much of the Himalayan glacier runoff volume gone by 2035. We do not have to lose all the glaciers to lose much of their functionality as water supplies.

    The difference between having a glacier; and not having a glacier is only the smallest fraction of a degree in average temperature, or a small change in relative humidity, or a small change in surface albedo, or a change in local hydrology.

    There was a glacier where I practiced ice climbing every year. Then, in June of 2005, as I was about to step onto it, it just slid over the cliff and into the valley below. What was left after the glacier slide away was bare, wet rock — that froze to a film of ice on rock in minutes. Yes, the air temperature was well below freezing that day. However, that little glacier slid on a film of water. Glaciers are complex structures.

    The oceans are warming, which suggests to me that precipitation events will be warmer, more energetic, and rain will replace snow higher and higher on the peaks. The question is, “How fast will this happen in the Himal?” That is a question that I do not have the data to answer, but I see nothing to give me any comfort (i.e., http://www.nepjol.info/index.php/HJS/article/viewArticle/979). What I do see are likely feedbacks between temperature, humidity, and hydrology to the detriment of glaciers as water sources.

    I suggest that the collapse of the glaciers as major water supplies may be very abrupt relative to the time it takes to plan and implement alternative water supplies. Failure of some glacier-runoff based water supplies in Glacier Park was very abrupt. Thus, leaders in the affected areas should have contingency plans in place prior to the actual collapse of the glaciers as water supplies. All things considered, I think 2030 is a good planning date to have those plans in hand. I would say that the odds are even that such plans will be needed by 2040. Given the impacts and the number of people affected, we do not want to be caught without a good water supply plan.

    Just because it is an “old news story”, does not mean it is wrong.

  15. Doug Bostrom says:

    “The difference between having a glacier; and not having a glacier is only the smallest fraction of a degree in average temperature, or a small change in relative humidity, or a small change in surface albedo, or a change in local hydrology.”

    That’s an excellent point and applies to a lot of other natural features. These are not engineered structures, they do not have a safety factor built in, they are exactly sized and fitted for and as a result of environmental conditions. Ice sheets, river deltas and estuaries share this, there are examples. We should not be surprised to see them respond relatively dramatically to what seem like miniscule changes in environmental conditions.

  16. Deep Climate says:

    #7 carrot eater
    Yes, that’s my take too. WG2 really doesn’t get the same attention.

    BTW, have you all seen the other latest scandal – courtesy of the National Post’s Lawrence Solomon? Apparently Google is censoring search results for the term “climategate”.

    http://deepclimate.org/2010/01/19/national-posts-lawrence-solomon-claims-google-censors-search-results/

  17. mauri pelto says:

    Aaron you will be wrong, most of the Himalayan glacier runoff will still be there, it will be declining as the area available for melting declines. An examination of 51 glaciers along the main Himalayan front in Indian, Sikkim and Nepal indicates all are retreating, and at an average rate of close to 15 meters per year. However, the average length of this group is 10 kilometers. Hence, it will take quite awhile to remove a large percentage of the larger glaciers. Which does not mean the issue is not serious, that the glacier are not shrinking substantially. They are and this matters to hydropower.
    http://glacierchange.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/zemu-glacier-sikkim-thinning-and-retreat/

    http://www.nichols.edu/departments/Glacier/glacier%20runoff%20hydropower.htm

  18. Al Hunt says:

    The average glacier is 1,000 feet deep? So assuming we get no moisture is key to the claim?

  19. Leif says:

    Albedo, as pointed out is an important contribution to the loss of glaciers and perhaps very important to the Himalayans because they are so close to the industrialization of China. I could even imagine a cumulative effect building up from year to year as surface ice can melt or sublimate thus leaving the soot to accumulate perhaps in wind blown areas or run off pools. Perhaps a “clean air” campaign in China could have positive stabilization effects in the near term. Now that so much thin snow and ice is gone the soot will be on the ground and a clean slate is presented.

  20. John McCormick says:

    Using 2035 as the Himalayan glaciers’*time of death* is the mistake being repeatedly made. There is no time certain on any projection of glaciers disappearing or seas rising by how many cms. Those projection have little value and distract from the immediacy of the global warming impacts. Fact is, seas are rising and the glaciers are in retreat and not only horizontally.

    Yale 360 provides a video by David Breashears that illustrates the swift retreat of the Rongbuk glacier near Everest by comparing photographs from the 1920s with pictures he took last November. As Breashears demonstrates, the Rongbuk has melted so severely that many sections of it are now 400 feet lower than eight decades ago and large swaths of it have disappeared.

    Get that! a 400 foot reduction in the mass of that glacier in less than a century.

    See the photos at:

    http://e360.yale.edu/content/digest.msp?id=1706

    The planning time frame for the Himalayan nations of nearly 1.3 billion inhabitants began about 50 years ago but they have not acted yet. And that population comprises the largest number of impoverished people on the planet.

    Will we be texting $10 contributions to help save much of South Asia’s population from starvation by 2035? There we go again….putting a time frame on an unpredictable so we can breath easier knowing that crisis is 25 years down the road.

    John McCormick

  21. Joe, when you (and others) say things like ” If we don’t reverse our emissions trend soon, their disappearance is likely to become irreversible before then,” you are unstating the case.

    Nearly all such statements should be preceeded by “If we do not remove the excess CO2 already in the atmosphere, then….”

    Reversing the emissions trend will do little to reverse our climate troubles. Only cleaning up the excess CO2 can do that. We don’t have several centuries to wait for the excess CO2 to be partiall absorbed– and as it does, the ocean acidification will get much worse.

    Only a cleanup of excess CO2 that is big and quick is likely to reverse acidification and the thermal expansion of the oceans. And relieve some of the knock-on consequences of overheating such as Deluge ‘n’ Drought and the expansion of the tropics.

    Merely trimming emissions is like locking the barn door after the horses are gone–it gives the appearance of “doing something about it” without actual recovery.

    [JR: I’m a big fan, as you know, but you can’t go negative before you go to zero. I think I’ve been clear we should get to zero if not lower by 2100. Note: That ain’t easy, and I have spelled out how it might be done. I’m not, however, holding my breath.]

  22. SecularAnimist says:

    William H. Calvin wrote: “Reversing the emissions trend will do little to reverse our climate troubles. Only cleaning up the excess CO2 can do that.”

    True enough. The current anthropogenic excess of CO2 in the atmosphere is already causing rapid, extreme, dangerous warming and consequent climate change. We certainly do need to draw down that anthropogenic excess (which I believe can be accomplished by using reforestation and organic agriculture to sequester carbon in the soils and biosphere).

    But reversing the trend of increasing emissions, and putting us on a trend of rapidly reducing emissions to near zero, is a prerequisite to reducing current CO2 concentrations to pre-industrial levels.

    As long as we continue adding CO2 at anything like present rates, let alone the accelerating rates of the “business as usual” scenario for fossil fuel use, there is no possibility of reducing the current anthropogenic excess of CO2.

  23. Go zero before go negative is all true, but it obscures the goal, sets a goal so far in the future that people forget the urgency. The politicians will do the compromising, there is no point in us scientists doing it for them.

    [JR: It’s hard enough to get people focused on a 2020 target, let alone 2030 or even 2050. Zero is a post-2050 goal by any stretch of realism.]

  24. George Darroch says:

    “But if you’re just going to review the provenance of this one questionable number, then you are not providing a useful service — once again”

    It’s hard to believe just how useless they are in this regard. Conservatism wins out over meaningful and considered responses. And the deniers take more ground with even less evidence.

  25. Manu Sharma says:

    Joe, why limit the call for IPCC review to only ice melt and sea level rise? IPCC projections and approach are conservative and inadequate in many more areas. I just blogged about this.

    http://orangehues.com/blog/2010/01/joe-romm-has-great-post-on-his-popular.html

  26. TINSTAAFL says:

    Why is my comment axed? Because it doesn’t comply with your warmist view?

    My comment was that it made perfectly sense that glaciologists were not included in the review about the Earth’s major glaciers, or wassit? It kinda shows how IPCC works…

    Let me see if this message will be axed again?

  27. Kiwiiano says:

    Just out of curiosity, are the Himalayan glaciers retreating because of faster melting, lower accretion or both?
    Faster melting will lead to flood disasters and water shortages downstream while lower precipitation will just cause shortages. Neither are very encouraging.

  28. Doug Bostrom says:

    TINSTAAFL says: January 20, 2010 at 4:29 am

    Looks as though your shorts unwound themselves, good, I’m sure you’re more comfortable now. Saving you some pain in the future, this site has some sort of glitch where posts fail to appear occasionally, regardless of content.

    You need to do some research on the structure and composition of IPCC. Why not go IPCC’s website and read about it?

  29. Leland Palmer says:

    The NASA Grace Tellus gravimetric satellites show continuing mass loss in the Himalayas, presumably from ice loss:

    http://www.sci.hokudai.ac.jp/~kouji-matsuo/pdf/Tibet_EPSL_distr.pdf

    Substantial amount of glacial ice is considered to be melting in the Asian high mountains. Gravimetry by GRACE satellite during 2003-2009 suggests the average ice loss rate in this region of 47 ± 12 Gigaton (Gt) yr−1, equivalent to ~0.13 ± 0.04 mm yr−1 sea level rise. This is twice as fast as the average rate over ~40 years before the studied period, and agrees with the global tendency of accelerating glacial loss. Such ice loss rate varies both in time and space; mass loss in Himalaya is slightly decelerating while those in northwestern glaciers show clear acceleration. Uncertainty still remains in the groundwater decline in northern India, and proportion of almost isostatic (e.g. tectonic uplift) and non-isostatic (e.g. glacial isostatic adjustment) portions in the current uplift rate of the Tibetan Plateau. If gravity increase associated with ongoing glacial isostatic adjustment partially canceled the negative gravity trend, the corrected ice loss rate could reach 61 Gt yr−1.

    Call it 50 billion tons per year, although this is a developing area of research, and the few papers available on this talk about the necessity of validation of the data with ground measurements, and emphasize that some areas actually appear to be growing, not shrinking.

    Fifty billion tons per year is about fifty cubic kilometers, I think. Total ice volume of the Tibetan Plateau is about 5000 cubic kilometers, so far as I can tell by googling. A straight line, back of the envelope estimate is that these glaciers would last 100 years.

    But ice mass loss should accelerate, as warming continues. So a fifty year time frame is not out of the question, nor is a thirty or forty year time frame for most of these glaciers to be gone.

    So the 2035 twenty five year time frame seems a little too fast, by maybe not by much.