News & Media Opinion Pieces “Climate Science on Thin Ice”- an analysis

“Climate Science on Thin Ice”- an analysis

“Climate Science on Thin Ice”- an analysis

“Climate Science on thin ice” was the title of an article placed prominently in “The Australian” on January 18. The report stated

    THE prediction, if true, was an apocalyptic one. The “rapid melting” of thousands of glaciers across the Himalayas would lead to deadly floods, followed by severe long-term water shortages across the food bowl of central Asia.

    The melting glaciers would cause havoc to water supplies feeding Asia’s nine largest rivers, including the Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers, affecting hundreds of millions of people.The result, according to a 2005 report by environmental group WWF, would be “massive eco and environmental problems for people in western China, Nepal and northern India”
    The WWF’s claim the 2400km Himalayan range was experiencing a rapid retreat in its glaciers was supported in stronger terms only two years later by the peak UN body on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    In its 2007 report, the IPCC concluded: “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the earth keeps warming at the current rate.

The full article is at

For those members interaction with politicians and Ministers it is important to appreciate all the facts. The WWF report of 2005 was a review of the existing literature and was not original research. As such it should have not been quoted. However in Chapter 10 of the Working group 2 report the following statement was made

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

The IPCC has apologised for this paragraph as follows

The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: “Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small icecaps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. 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 melt water from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.”

This conclusion is robust, appropriate, and entirely consistent with the underlying science and the broader IPCC assessment.

It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment2 refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.

The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of “the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report” 3. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.


The full IPCC report has approximately 2500 pages. Of this the Working Group 2 has 938 pages divided into 20 chapters. In chapter 10 of Working Group 2, there is one paragraph of 65 words in question because it refers to a WWF review dated 2005. This chapter has 391 references. One reference was inappropriate. To put this matter in perspective the entire report is constructed by hundreds of scientists and other experts. Each chapter is then reviewed by independent experts (Assessors), every section and every reference. The Assessor’s work is voluntary and extensive. Thousands of references are checked at source. After 2 years one reference has been found wanting – hardly a chip off the solid granite edifice of this report.

Please read the Australian article and see if you feel its conclusions are justified or balanced. The word ‘glaciergate’ is used in additional articles on the topic in the Australian which generally question the integrity of the entire report. (The use of the word ‘gate’, originates from the scandal of Watergate and President Nixon) It would be the opinion of many that the Australian’s reporting on climate change has not been balanced and has impaired public understanding of the issue. In the face of so many opinion pieces showing skepticism or worse, denial, over a number of years, many feel there is an agenda to tear down the concept.

Nevertheless there is a lesson to be learned from this mistake which is applicable to all scientists and to all who supervise and examine research and theses. It is – always check the references at source diligently. Do not refer to a review without sourcing the references from which it draws its statements

As for this event, the view perpetrated by sections of the press and some politicians will have confirmed to their own satisfaction–that there is a climate change “industry” heavily funded for its own benefit and composed of various of fellow travellers. We can do little about this but to get on with the job. To us it is a public health issue and we will work to protect the community.

David Shearman

This article is the view of an Assessor for chapters in the two most recent IPCC reports. For a view of a non-Assessor go to
and from the Climate Action Centre