Nature India | Indigenus

Melting glaciers

When will the Himalayan glaciers melt, is the question the IPCC has been losing sleep over. Frankly, the debate over the question has been bothering me no end, especially since the science providing the answer has been so divided. When it comes to climate change and melting glaciers, there are theories galore. So, I had chosen not to make a comment on the issue that has caught a lot of media attention in India and was churning up new dates to the melting theory everyday.

Till the IPCC chose to speak, of course.

This evening IPCC chairperson R K Pachauri also sent across a document: FAQ on “Climate Change and Impacts on Glaciers” clearing the ice on the very many hows, whens and whys. I reproduce the document as is below for wider interpretation and understanding. Hope it ends the sparring over dates and redirects the climate change debate to where it should go:

Q 1) The IPCC has wrongly quoted the melting of Himalayan Glaciers by 2035?

IPCC’s conclusions in the synthesis report of AR4 “Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.” are robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment. The statement on glacial retreat in the technical report is a regrettable error arising out of established processes not being diligently followed.

Q2) Has this been responsible for creating alarm?

While some people may have been genuinely alarmed by this, it has not resulted in any extreme reaction. What it did lead to was an appreciation of the need for better quality data and research and heightened awareness about the real threat to the Himalayan glaciers. A wide range of community perceptions in these regions testify to this threat.

Q 3) What is the possibility that there are no more errors in the report?

The possibility is minimal – if not non-existent. As mentioned above, the IPCC has laid out well documented procedures on the use of literature both peer-reviewed and grey by way of which the scientists develop the reports. The responsibility of assessing the quality of this literature and ensuring its availability for future use lies with the authors within the larger process. After the finalisation of the chapters by authors, there is a well defined review process that is undertaken. The chapters are then put in the public domain for inviting comments. After the comments are addressed the chapters are also sent to country governments for review and comment and all these processes have been followed.

Q 4) The report on Glaciers endorsed by MoEF (India’s ministry of environment and forests) last year had alternative views to present on retreat?

The science of glacier retreat or advancement is extremely complex and conclusions can be reached only after studying both the area and the mass. The MoEF report does not indicate that both these aspects have been fully addressed. In any case, this issue of the error in the IPCC report can not be used to authenticate the findings of the MoEF report.

Q5) Would the IPCC take action against any scientist you think is responsible for such an outcome?

As explained above, there is a full process that is followed and attributing responsibility on specific experts may not be desirable, particularly since the error was more of one of judgement. We would be reviewing and strengthening our processes henceforth.

Q 6) How does this affect the credibility of IPCC?

Given the extremely complex nature of the climate change science, impacts, vulnerability and adaptation and the large number of issues that are addressed in the IPCC report from literature that is from all over the world, I am confident that this regrettable issue should not in any way detract from the work done by hundreds of eminent scientists carefully selected and nominated by governments.

Q 7) What is the attribution to black carbon?

This is an important area in which active research is being pursued at a number of institutes across the world. However, it is difficult to attribute the extent to which black carbon impacts the melting of Himalayan glaciers till we have critical body of scientific literature.

Q 8) There have been views that your institute has gained from the alarmist situation created to rope in projects worth billions of dollars?

Research on climate change in TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute , which Pachauri heads) goes as far as back as 1987 – before the IPCC had been formed. Our work on glaciers started two years ago recognising the need for greater field based data generation and modelling. The IPCC report has also pointed out the need for more research in these areas.

Q 9) What is TERI’s research on glaciers?

The project on Himalayan glacier quoted by the media (Hi Noon) is an EU funded project under the FP7 programme. TERI participated in this competitive bid as one partner in a consortium of institutions led by a European institution and involves several other Indian institutions including IIT Delhi and Kharagpur. Each institute has a well defined role and TERI is addressing the issue of socio-economic impact assessment.

Q10) What work is TERI doing with Government of Iceland?

The Global Centre, Iceland received support from Carnegie Foundation for glacier related work. Our collaboration with this Centre is for the purpose of training and teaching in glaciology.

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