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Friday, January 22, 2010
Icing over the facts
The Age, January 23, 2010
The war on science took an absurd turn this week, writes Ben Cubby.
To stand near the snout of a glacier is to take a glimpse of geological time grinding forward on its non-human scale. The vast mass of compressed ice crushes everything in its path to gravel, but it does so with invisible slowness, mostly creeping back and forth at the rate of a few metres a year.
The consensus position among glaciologists is that most of the world's glaciers are retreating at a startling rate that in many cases can only be explained by the rising temperatures brought about by climate change. It is also true that some glaciers remain static or are growing as a result of regional weather patterns, some of which are also influenced by global warming.
This week saw unprecedented fascination with glacier research, and people who had never before shown the slightest interest in the subject before bombarded universities and research centres with questions.
The flurry of attention was sparked by a front-page story in The Sunday Times in London, reprinted the next day in some Australian newspapers, which pointed out that a mistake about the timing of glacier retreats had crept into one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's ''working group'' reports. The report said that Himalayan glaciers could be gone or greatly reduced by 2035 - a rate of decline far outstripping other glacier fields around the world.
The error, apparently based on a misreading of the year 2350 as 2035 in a decade-old research study, was in fact fairly well known among glaciologists. The story had been ''discovered'' and publicly discussed at least four times in the three years before The Sunday Times published its exclusive, including a long piece by the BBC last December.
That the error was uncovered by the correct application of the peer-review process, and the consensus view among the experts was shown to be right, made little difference to the media coverage, which focused on the flaws in the IPCC. Amid the uproar, the panel issued a statement on Wednesday conceding that: ''In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.''
So, if a dumb mistake like this can slip through, what other errors are lurking in the 3000 pages of the Nobel Prize-winning document?
The only way to check is to comb through the archive of reviewers' comments. It makes for weird and wonderful reading. The offending passage lies nestled among earnest discussion of the flowering times of Japanese apricot trees and the potential for a grass-skiing industry in Asia.
The review process for the IPCC's published work is extensive. Authors develop draft chapters on a particular topic and send them out for checking by a wide variety of other scientists. Reviewers examine the chapters line by line and their comments are chronologically recorded and preserved for public scrutiny like a fossil record of a very long and wandering debate.
Contrary to the view of many climate sceptics, the review process is transparent and open to a wide range of scientists, and some non-scientists. Climate sceptics are, if anything, over-represented in the fact-checking process. Among the hundreds of independent ''expert reviewers'' is the Australian meteorologist William Kininmonth, a sceptic who has been fighting the idea of man-made climate change for many years.
Another reviewer is the prominent British sceptic Christopher Walter Monckton, the Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who arrives in Australia on Monday on a lecture tour with the support of business and mining industry figures, with the purpose of undermining public support for carbon emissions cuts.
Monckton, incidentally, still claims to have won a Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the IPCC report, though the Nobel Committee has no record of this.
But if there were a real prize awarded for sceptic diligence, it would surely go to Vincent Gray, a chemist associated with the New Zealand Coal Research Association. Gray logged almost 1900 comments and complaints on the latest report alone, largely on matters of grammar and presentation.
Despite the exquisite pedantry of some of the reviewers, the flawed reference to the imminent retreat of Himalayan glaciers that appeared on page 493 of the working group report was picked up during the review process by several scientists with expertise that touched on the field.
It is worth looking in a little more detail at the reviewers' discussion because it hints at the reason for the mistake. Dr David Saltz, a desert researcher at Ben Gurion University in Israel, noticed the discrepancy between a claim that Himalayan glaciers could shrink in size from 500,000 to 100,000 square kilometres in the next three decades, and a later sentence saying that they could disappear. ''100,000? You just said it will disappear,'' he wrote. ''Missed to clarify this one,'' was the author's terse reply.
Another reviewer, the water and climate change specialist Dr Hayley Fowler, of Newcastle University in Britain, logged a lengthy objection beginning ''I am not sure that this is true'' and citing more recent research. ''Was unable to get hold of the suggested references will consider in the final version,'' was the author's response.
Associate Professor Poh Poh Wong, of the National University of Singapore, asked that examples of retreating glaciers from around the world be included if the claim that ''Himalayan glaciers are indeed receding faster'' was to stand. None of the reviewers could be contacted by the Herald to discuss their doubts, but it is clear that red flags were raised over the Himalayan glacier question when the document was being reviewed in August 2006. The review comments make it clear inclusion of the passage in the working group report was an editing error that the authors were given every excuse to delete.
In fact, doubts had already been raised about the claim, first made in 1999 in New Scientist magazine, that the Himalayan glaciers could be gone by 2035. Given that the Himalayas contain trillions of tonnes of compressed ice, it could take almost until 2035 to melt it at room temperature, let alone the freezing conditions at altitude, as several eminent glaciologists have pointed out over the past three years.
It was revisited and dismissed by a report prepared for the Indian Government, and released in charged circumstances late last year, as the nation came under pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The report concluded that, while measurements showed most glaciers had been in retreat for several decades, there was not enough data to draw a conclusive opinion on the cause. This report has since been attacked and contradicted in part by the work of other glaciologists.
The mistaken Himalayan claim did not make the cut in the IPCC's synthesis report, or the ''summary for policymakers'' document which was presented to governments in 2007 as a basis for deciding how to cope with climate change. It was also contradicted by glacier research elsewhere in the IPCC's report, which has not been challenged during the review process or subsequently. That establishes, by verifiable observations made by dozens of agencies and hundreds of research teams, that the ice is indeed melting.
''The general picture is one of widespread retreat, notably in Alaska, Franz-Josef Land, Asia, the Alps, Indonesia and Africa, and tropical and subtropical regions of South America,'' the synthesis report says.
Nevertheless, the IPCC announced this week that it would again review its editing procedure.