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Correction to Geoengineering Gambit Feature

The claim that Himalayan glaciers will disappear in 25 years is unsubstantiated.
January 20, 2010

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been looking into a comment from one of the people who read my recent feature on geoengineering, “The Geoengineering Gambit.” The comment had to do with the first paragraph of the feature, which says that glaciers in the Himalayas are in danger of disappearing in just 25 years, threatening the water supply for people in India, China and other Asian countries. That statement was based on a report by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), which states:

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.

A reader pointed out that in recent months there has been speculation that the number 2035 was in error, and that the original source estimated the glaciers would disappear by 2350. I’ve since contacted the IPCC and read the relevant sources. It’s still unclear whether the original date was indeed 2350, although there is, I believe, a strong case that it was, and that the IPCC was therefore off by about 300 years.

What is clear is that the IPCC got this date, not from peer-reviewed literature, but from an article in the magazine New Scientist. The IPCC report does not cite the New Scientist in the report, so there was no way of knowing that the organization, in this case, decided not to rely on peer-reviewed literature. Today the IPCC issued an official statement saying the information was from “poorly substantiated sources” and that “the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”

In other words, there is no solid source for the statement that the glaciers will disappear in 25 years, and I regret that this statement was included in the feature. We’ll print a correction in the next issue, but I also wanted to call reader’s attention to this error here.

The main point of the feature isn’t affected by this mistake. Scientists are concerned enough about rapid climate change to recommend the study of geoengineering methods for rapidly cooling down the earth, and the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers was only one of the reasons, and indeed not even the main reason cited by the people I talked to. The potential for drought, species extinction, ocean acidification and rising sea levels were their top concerns.

A story about the IPCC error, and how it occurred, and what it means for the credibility of that organization, will appear tomorrow on our website.

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