The 2035 Himalayan glacier doomsday date in Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was a mistake, say Indian
scientists. But debate continues over how fast Himalayan glaciers
are melting due to global warming.
First, the good news: Himalayan glaciers are not likely to
disappear by 2035, as originally claimed by a widely-publicized
United Nations report.
The bad news? Scientists did not challenge the spurious date for
years and some now warn that, in fact, our understanding about
Himalayan glaciers rests on thin data.
Over the past week, it emerged that the doomsday date found its
way into a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) not from a peer-reviewed study but from an interview
published in the New Scientist 10 years ago. That article attributed
the prediction to Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a noted Indian glaciologist,
who denies he put forth such a date.
Dr. Hasnain said this week he saw the mistake 10 years ago but
did not seek a correction because it did not appear in a scientific
journal. Other Indian scientists, after debunking a similar claim
about melting glaciers in response to an Indian Parliament inquiry,
also did not seek out the press with the information, says Rajinder
Ganjoo, director of the Institute of Himalayan Glaciology at the
University of Jammu.
"Perhaps we thought it was not important at the moment or maybe
that the IPCC was a big dinosaur," he says. Asked if he has felt
political pressure, he declined to comment further.
The IPCC draws upon some 2,500 scientific reviewers and basks in
the prestige of a Nobel Prize, while Indian glaciologists number
barely more than a dozen. And the task ahead of them is, well,
"As of today, there are roughly 50 glaciers that have been worked
scientifically," says Dr. Ganjoo. "Frankly speaking, 50 glaciers are
absolutely a tip of the iceberg to get an idea about the other 9,500
[Himalayan] glaciers. I think it will take us ages to do work on
each and every glacier."
Hurdles abound. Many glaciers lie above 18,000 feet, making them
virtually inaccessible. The mountain range also falls along tense
international borders between India, Pakistan, and China. India has
classified decades of glacial data gathered by the Geological Survey
of India. Ganjoo's work on the Siachen glacier - where Indian and
Pakistani troops periodically trade potshots - required special
permissions from defense officials.
A consensus has emerged among scientists that the data gathered
so far generally shows glaciers on the retreat particularly in the
northeastern Himalaya. But there remains debate over why they're
shrinking, and at what rate.
Some of that debate has been hashed out in the scientific
journals. Ganjoo sides with a faction that argues there are so many
factors involved in glacial melt that a finger cannot yet be pointed
at rises in atmospheric temperature - i. …