Undoing 'The Curse' of a Chain of Errors

Anatomy of IPCC’s Mistake on Himalayan Glaciers and Year 2035

See Editor’s Note Introducing this Feature

On the heels of the Copenhagen climate talks – whose scant accomplishments reveal that climate change science may be no match for international politics – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds itself in a scientific controversy of its own making.

The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report’s malformed paragraph on Himalayan glacier melt has prompted intense, and warranted, criticism of the IPCC review process. This criticism has come not only from climate science skeptics or contrarians. It’s generally clear that the ungrammatical, internally contradictory two sentences – which reproduce errors found in improperly cited sources – shouldn’t have made it into the first draft of the report, much less the final.

The IPCC now has recanted the paragraph in question. Though the widely quoted claims were in print for nearly three years, the IPCC’s admission does indicate that scientific errors can be publicly identified and corrected.

But the errors don’t end – or begin – with the IPCC report. A careful look shows a complex set of conflations and misquotations begun by some science journalists more than a decade ago, transmitted and compounded by members of the IPCC Working Group II writing team, and hopelessly muddled by hasty, confused press coverage.

As Though A Pervasive Curse Haunts Accurate Coverage

Dozens of articles and analyses of this situation, whether dashed-off blog posts or New York Times coverage, exhibit a curious consistency. Not a single article or analysis appears to include all relevant issues without introducing at least one substantial error. It’s as though the original documents contained a curse which has spread to infect every commentator and reporter. The curse seems to stem from not reading sources carefully (or at all), which, ironically, was the IPCC Working Group II’s central failing, and also a major issue in the documents that were the basis of the defective paragraph.

For a good, brief, but cursed summary of these events, see Canadian geographer Graham Cogley’s letter to Science. Cogley, who was an important early investigator of this issue, gets a lot right, but – the curse! – he does not mention that an Indian environmental magazine was likely the source that the IPCC copied and pasted.

Having identified “the curse,” one runs the risk of falling prey to it. The authors here vow to respond quickly to correct any error in this account.

Considering the sources carefully and in context clarifies some aspects of the story and complicates others. An extended investigation of this controversy leads to a more nuanced understanding of the tremendous – and frequently unacknowledged – challenges of reading and reproducing electronic information in our globalized world. Heightened awareness of these fault-lines may enhance the ability of scientists, policymakers, and journalists to communicate about climate change. This analysis also reveals that IPCC scientists and science journalists can learn from each others’ best practices. Indeed, such cross-pollination could play a vital role in strengthening both communities.

The Defective Paragraph and its Foundational Errors

Here is the relevant paragraph from the IPCC report:

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 [sic] total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).

Media coverage has focused largely on the lack of scientific support for these claims. But three major errors can be spotted immediately, without consulting the IPCC’s sources:

1.  The first sentence predicts disappearance (a 100 percent loss) by 2035. The next sentence predicts an 80 percent loss. Nonetheless, the first prediction is made using more confident language.

2.  The second sentence begins with “Its,” ungrammatical if it is referring to “glaciers” and unclear otherwise. It’s as if the two sentences were simply copied and pasted from different sources.

3.  The approximate area of the Himalayan glaciers is 33,000 km2, so the 500,000 km2 starting figure in the second sentence is off by a factor of 15, and the decreased area predicted in 2035 – 100,000 km2 – is three times greater than the current Himalayan glacier area.

David Saltz, an IPCC reviewer, spotted the first two errors before publication (as discussed below), but they were not corrected. The third error has been under-discussed. But where did it come from? Quick source checking reveals that the 500,000 km2 claim does not appear in the WWF report, discussed below, which the IPCC cites. A more elaborate search reveals that the sentence originated in V.M. Kotlyakov’s paper Variations of Snow and Ice in the past and at present on a Global and Regional Scale (published in 1996 but apparently written in 1991), which states:

The extrapolar glaciation of the Earth will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates – its total area will shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2350.

As numerous sources have pointed out, Kotlyakov was referring to all extrapolar glaciers, and suggesting that they would decline by the year 2350, not 2035.

Climate Science Watch succinctly shows how this error – indeed, how the whole IPCC paragraph – reproduced two fundamental errors introduced in “Glaciers Beating Retreat,” Mridula Chettri’s April 30, 1999, article for the reputable Indian environmental magazine Down to Earth. Climate Science Watch republished Chettri’s paragraph and highlighted the identical IPCC text in bold. However – the curse again! – it neglected to bold a key phrase. We have underlined what it should have bolded.

Chettri’s article, which, again, is from Down to Earth magazine, April 30, 1999, reads:

Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high,” says the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI) in its recent study on Asian glaciers. “But if the Earth keeps getting warmer at the current rate, it might happen much sooner,” says Syed Iqbal Hasnain of the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Hasnain is also the chairperson of the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology (WGHG), constituted in 1995 by the ICSI.

The glacier will be decaying at rapid, catastrophic rates. Its total area will shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 square km by the year 2035,” says former ICSI president V M Kotlyakov in the report Variations of snow and ice in the past and present on a global and regional scale (see table: Receding rivers of ice).

Chettri’s writing gives the impression that she is quoting Syed Iqbal Hasnain and the ICSI separately. But Hasnain was not just the chairperson of the WGHG, as Chettri notes: he also was the sole credited author of the ICSI report she mentions. One source has been split into two. The report does not contain anything resembling the quotation that Chettri pulls from it. Moreover, it was never published, suggesting that Chettri credited to the report something she thought she heard in the interview with Hasnain.

The report was apparently scanned and put online by glaciologist Georg Kaser at the request of Graham Cogley, the Canadian geographer mentioned above. (According to metadata in the PDF, it was scanned on 11/23/2009.) Kaser, a lead author for IPCC Working Group I, says he alerted the IPCC about the erroneous paragraph in 2006, before the Fourth Assessment Report was published. Left unclear is why WG II was consulting popular science magazines instead of top IPCC glaciologists? Working Group I chapter 4.5, for example, contains detailed documentation on world-wide glacier melt.

It is unclear where Chettri got the “Receding rivers of ice” table for her article in Down to Earth (see below). No such table appears in Kotlyakov’s 1996 paper, and although Table I in Hasnain’s unpublished 1999 paper has the same goal – indicating the speed of glacier melt – it is substantially different. Of the eight glaciers mentioned by Chettri, only one (Ponting Glacier) has the same dates and retreat figures as in Hasnain. The other glaciers either do not appear at all or appear with different dates or figures. Chettri gives no source for her data, and she clearly did not simply just mechanically copy from Hasnain’s unpublished paper or rounding his figures: for example, Pindari Glacier is given a retreat of 2,840 meters in Chettri and 3,000 in Hasnain over the same time period. Hasnain also mentions several glacier studies that Chettri does not.

However, the IPCC authors seem to have directly copied Chettri’s table from the Down to Earth magazine article. Compare Chettri’s table to Table 10.9 in IPCC Section 10.6.2:

The IPCC’s table is almost identical to Chettri’s – a fact which has been largely missed in the discussion so far. The glacier names, the headings (except for capitalization), the dates, the figures, and even the (arbitrary) order are the same, with only one exception: a second study on Gangotri Glacier has been added. This study is credited in the IPCC text as Hasnain (2002).

As mentioned above, the final version of the IPCC document also cites a 2005 WWF report. The WWF report has been intensely discussed since this mistake became clear. Its Table 7 (on page 32), however, is quite different from the IPCC’s. It does not include total retreat figures, only average retreats per year. To its credit, it also includes sources for each claim. All but two glacier studies in the WWF report either have different dates in the IPCC table or do not appear at all. Small details confirm the difference: the WWF spells Bara Shigri as Bada Shigri (both transliterations from Hindi are permissible), and puts a hyphen in Chota-Shigri. The only data identical in both tables is Hasnain’s 1985-2001 study of Gangotri, although the WWF cites a 2004 paper, not the 2002 paper mentioned by IPCC.

More strikingly, the IPCC table contains a simple mathematical error found also in the Down to Earth article, but not in the WWF report. This error is like a radioactive tracer back to Chettri’s article, as it could not likely have been made twice. The 1845 to 1966 Pindari Glacier study appears in all three tables, but only the WWF report correctly divides the 2,840-meter retreat by 121 years to arrive at the actual yearly rate of 23 meters. Both the Down to Earth and IPCC tables divide 2,840 by 21 years instead of 121, leading to an incorrect, much faster retreat rate of 135 meters per year.

Quite a curse. But the January 24th Daily Mail article reporting the division error is itself cursed – it misattributes the error to the WWF report, which actually gives the correct figure for Pindari melt. (It’s possible that the error was silently corrected, but a January 19 copy of the WWF report, with the original March 9, 2005, creation date, has the 23 meters-per-year figure.) Basing the IPCC claim only on an advocacy group’s report would have been inappropriate even if the report had in fact been the source of the data. The IPCC’s citation error compounds the paragraph’s problems, confusing numerous reporters who haven’t looked at the sources.

So what do we know? Despite the incorrect citation to the WWF 2005 report, two numerical quirks – the 2350-to-2035 switch and the division error – and various other features of the language and presentation are lifted directly from Chettri’s Down to Earth article. Since, as we’ll see, the WWF 2005 citation did not appear until the final draft of the report, one possible scenario is this:

(1)  An original author copied and pasted the text from Chettri’s Down to Earth article. Perhaps it was never intended for final publication; it might have been working notes that lost their citation and then got incorrectly placed in the draft document.
(2)  When a second-round reviewer asked that the section’s citations be improved, a different IPCC author, processing the comments, noticed that this section was unattributed and tried to find the source.
(3)  The citation to the WWF 2005 report appeared at this point. The WWF report, in turn, cites “Flooded Out,” a New Scientist article from 1999, which has received far more attention than Chettri’s piece. The author of that article, Fred Pearce, recently told the Australian that he had read the Chettri article, and though he did not cite it, he appears to have been substantially influenced by it. The second-round IPCC author, perhaps in an unprofessional rush, may have noticed the subject matter similarity between the WWF and IPCC tables and simply added the citation.

The scenario above is speculation. Much of the media coverage – including reporter Andy Revkin’s summary on DotEarth – has argued that the IPCC authors were drawing upon the WWF 2005 report and the New Scientist article. Some even claim the IPCC looked at the 1996 Kotlyakov paper that contained the 2350 figure. Neither explanation appears satisfactory, in light of the clear differences between the WWF and IPCC tables and the verbatim similarities between the Chettri article and the IPCC report.

Questions remain about the Pearce and WWF pieces, however, since they also reproduce the 2035 claim attributed to (and now disclaimed by) Hasnain.

In a January 13, 2010, reflection on the article he had written more than a decade ago, Pearce said he had interviewed Hasnain via e-mail. But almost every news story written since then claims that Pearce’s interview was by telephone. If still available, the record of that 10-year-old e-mail could resolve this inconsistency. Further, Pearce’s January 13th article is multiply cursed – it excoriates the IPCC for citing the WWF report but does not mention the Down to Earth article (even though Pearce had used it as a source himself), does not note that the 500,000 km2 figure was not actually in the WWF report, and does not report that the table in the WWF report does not match the table in the IPCC report or include the division error.

It seems that none of the journalists who have cited Pearce’s account of the controversy have read the original sources in question. If papers like The New York Times and the Sunday Times had adequately source-checked, they would have realized that the story was more complicated than Pearce’s account suggests.

Mistakes Made During Review, and Echoed in Media

Despite what has been regularly reported in the media, IPCC’s formal policies do not prevent it from quoting non-peer-reviewed literature in certain cases. As the IPCC has acknowledged, the sequence of steps required to do this was not followed for the paragraph in question.

However, another corrective process was not only followed but is documented online. The entire IPCC Fourth Assessment Report underwent a formal review, and with sufficient attention to detail, one can reconstruct several elements of how this process failed in the case of section 10.6.2.

There were no comments at the first draft stage related to the errors in 10.6.2. One reviewer said that the glacier retreat table discussed above should be removed, but gave no explanation; the writing team said this was an “irrelevant editorial comment” and did not remove it.

The second draft, however, generated twelve comments from experts and four comments from governments. [Click here for a PDF analyzing every comment made on section 10.6.2 and of how the IPCC writing team responded.]

That analysis reveals that this section was as poorly revised as it had been written. The writing team responded to eight comments by simply indicating that revisions had been made. However, in five of those cases, the final text was unchanged, and in another case one issue was corrected but another was not. Twice, reviewers asked that unclear terms be explained; the writing team did so in their responses to the comments, but did not change the terms in the actual text.

For example, Section 10.6.2 cited Table 10.9, discussed above, to support the claim that “[g]laciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world.” Table 10.9, however, contained only data on Himalayan glaciers, and therefore could not support this claim. One reviewer noticed this discrepancy and asked for tabular data on non-Himalayan glaciers. The writing team responded with “Revised the section,” but no changes were made for the final draft.

Other comments deal with citation issues. Hayley Fowler, a reviewer from Newcastle University, suggested that some glaciers in the western Himalaya may actually be expanding as a result of climate change, which both IPCC Working Group I and another section in Working Group II discussed. Fowler suggested adding three references to 10.6.2. She also strongly recommended a 2005 paper from Nature which underscored the urgency of glacial melting in the Himalayas and worldwide: “[i]t appears that some areas of [the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region] are likely to ‘run out of water’ during the dry season if the current warming and glacial melting trends continue for several more decades.” Although this paper would have substantially strengthened Section 10.6.2, the writers did not include it either. Their comment about all three papers: “Was unable to get hold of the suggested references will consider in the final version.” (Working Group I, and the authors of WG II Section must not have had the same trouble, as both contain at least one of Fowler’s suggested cites on glacier expansion.)

Notably, another reviewer complained that 10.6.2 had only one reference. The writing team responded to this with “More references added,” and the final draft of 10.6.2 did contain two more. One of them was the incorrect WWF 2005 citation mentioned previously.

The government of Japan had two comments questioning the probability of glacier melt. These were important points, since the IPCC uses tightly controlled language to indicate its authors’ assessments of probability and certainty. (This is a major aspect of the Fourth Assessment Report, which grapples with the problem of presenting uncertain probabilities to policymakers who demand certainty. Thus, the phrase “virtually certain” means that the IPCC authors believe what they are describing has a 99 percent or greater probability of occurrence, “very likely” indicates an assessment of a 90-99 percent probability occurrence, and so on.)

The writing team responded to both comments with the statement “appropriate revisions and edits made.” One “appropriate revision” involved sticking the word “likely” before the word “shrink” in the second sentence of the paragraph – language which does indicate a probability assessment. However, the phrase “likelihood … is very high” in the first sentence, which, unlike “very likely,” does not indicate a probability assessment, was unchanged. It may not appear obvious to some that “very likely” and “likelihood … is very high” have such different meanings, but this is a detail of IPCC procedure missed by both Elizabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times and Jonathan Leake and Chris Hastings of the Sunday Times. Rosenthal’s article improperly quotes Section 10.6.2 as containing the phrase “very likely,” an error the newspaper has not chosen to correct. Leake and Hastings get the language right but the analysis wrong. They write: “When finally published, the IPCC report did give its source as the WWF study but went further, suggesting the likelihood of the glaciers melting was “very high”. The IPCC defines this as having a probability of greater than 90 percent.” They were wrong – the IPCC in that case doesn’t use the term “very high” but rather “very likely.”

Some comments were even more detailed. As mentioned above, one reviewer, Saltz, questioned the ungrammatical use of “Its” and wondered what it referred to. The IPCC team responded “glaciers” but did not update the final text. Saltz also pointed out the glaring internal contradiction in the paragraph: “100,000? You just said it will disappear.” The IPCC team responded “Missed [sic] to clarify this one” and didn’t revise.

While these two concerns were ignored, a third suggestion of Saltz’s – that an alarmist-sounding sentence be cut – was accepted, so the questionable paragraph did undergo at least some correction.

Learning Lessons from the Himalayan 2035 Curse

All in all, both the IPCC and media coverage seem to have fallen off the log when it came to important details.

The offending paragraph about Himalayan glacier retreat was widely quoted in the media, without their first having adequately checked the sources used by IPCC. Perhaps this same tendency explains why most blogs and newspapers have reported incorrect and fragmentary versions of the IPCC’s errors in this case.

We expect a great deal from the IPCC process, and, at least as far as Section 10.6.2 goes, those expectations were not met. How much can we also reasonably expect from serious science journalism?

The curse can be vanquished. Perhaps both scientists and science journalists can learn from the best practices of each other’s professions. IPCC professional copy-editors could double- and triple-check facts, especially when expert comments raise questions. Moreover, IPCC could better append corrections to the original text where needed. (While the IPCC has retracted the paragraph in question, one can still download 10.6.2 without any indication that it contains an erroneous paragraph.)

Finally, experienced journalists are comfortable talking with both natural and social scientists. This controversy reveals a disconnect between IPCC Working Group I (which got the glaciology right), and Working Group II (which allowed the erroneous paragraph to slide).

Furthermore, science journalists and their editors, notwithstanding the economic pressures facing the media, need to resist inevitable temptations to base major conclusions on single sources of information without sufficient verification, which Chettri, Pearce, the WWF, the IPCC, The New York Times, the Sunday Times, and many papers quoting them have all done in different ways.

Ultimately, there is a common lesson for both scientists and the media: the need to drill down to original sources. This extra effort is vital in reporting on such complex and critical issues: It could help avoid future runaway quotations – like the claim that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 – and enable science, the media, and society to focus on real environmental problems, such as glacier melt which continues around the world.

The IPCC’s Himalayan glaciers mistake in the end can encourage stricter editing, closer scrutiny, and more transparency in the review process. In that case, the mistake will have served a valuable function.

Increased attention to primary scientific literature may help avoid future errors and also serve as a reminder that the IPCC process often tends towards conservative statements. It’s also important to remember that the science is constantly being updated. Consider, for example, the recent finding that the IPCC models may have systematically overestimated the ability of the biosphere to grow in response to increased carbon. If this research proves right, the IPCC’s long-term temperature projections for the world may be a full degree Centigrade too low, and controversies now commanding headlines will recede into history.

When the IPCC errs, it’s not always in the same direction.

Bidisha Banerjee (bidisha@yaleclimatemediaforum.org) is a Masters candidate at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. George Collins (george@yaleclimatemediaforum.org) is a joint degree candidate at Yale Law School and Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

From the Editor

Drilling Down: An In-Depth Examination
Of IPCC’s Himalayan Glaciers Mistake

The IPCC, and by extension the world’s responsible climate science community these letters have come to symbolize, is under attack like never before.

The criticisms this time result from mistakes, errors, and shortcomings of IPCC’s own doing. The difference now is that the criticisms aren’t coming solely from the vocal, but comparatively small, legion of climate contrarians and skeptics. This time, the criticisms are coming from within and from beyond IPCC, and from many who could fairly be considered impartial observers.

Color them now trending toward skeptical, in the best sense of that word.

IPCC’s allegiance to the established scientific method has made it a bastion of credibility and respect in the field. It’s just that standing that some now are calling into question.

Some see this episode as an example of science righting itself through its ongoing self-correcting process. In that case, the events surrounding the Himalayan-glaciers-gone-by-2035 fiasco might in the end prove to be a worthwhile learning experience, something from which positives – and not just negatives – can be gleaned.

When, after all, is the last time you heard of the most determined contrarians publicly rethinking and correcting their positions?

That said, timing is everything. In basketball, ballet, music, politics, and climate science. And the timing in this case could hardly have been worse.

The appropriate, understandable, and necessary brouhaha over the IPCC’s handling of the melting Himalayan glaciers conclusion comes in the wake of the comparatively far less serious (in terms of impact on actual climate science, if not popular perceptions) hacked e-mails fiasco. And of the disappointments with the Copenhagen climate summit. And of the shrinking prospects for significant legislative action on climate change from a weakened congressional leadership still reeling from the loss of its “veto-proof” 60-vote majority, a testy electorate, and nagging economic and unemployment woes.

But all these eventually can and do have a cumulative impact, certainly on the public perception of things, and therefore also on political and policy responses.

It’s just what any serious doctor would not prescribe, just when an already ailing political process needed it least.

How the climate science community – IPCC and the thousands of scientists on whose shoulders its work depends – responds is critical. First, we must fully understand exactly how and why the mistakes about the Himalayan glaciers occurred, keeping in mind that there is still no doubt that the world’s glaciers indeed are at heightened risk in our warming world.

Bidisha Banerjee’s and George Collins’s comprehensive analysis helps to answer the important “How did this happen?” question.

The next question involves how IPCC addresses flaws in its procedures to prevent recurrence of such a mistake. In doing so, it can maintain its standing as the science community’s, and indeed the world’s, most authoritative voice on climate change.

The world is watching. IPCC must act quickly to repair the damage and return the world’s attention and focus to the real story – the causes and consequences of, and potential solutions for, anthropogenic climate change.

The world’s glaciers, after all, aren’t sitting by idly waiting. For them, the clock is ticking.

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33 Responses to Anatomy of IPCC’s Mistake on Himalayan Glaciers and Year 2035

  1. carrot eater says:

    Wow. Hopefully that’s the definitive accounting.

    I think one solution going forward would be for WG2 to be published some time after WG1, so that the WG2 authors can draw on the finished product of WG1. Or perhaps, consult with those authors who actually know the material. I think William Connolley has suggested something of the sort.

  2. Wit's End says:

    Brilliant, the best analysis I’ve seen so far. May you disseminate it far and wide!

  3. Bidisha Banerjee and George Collins have done an excellent job of analysing the IPCC’s embarrassing mistake over the disappearing Himalayan glaciers.

    I wonder if I might tempt the authors into a similar analysis of a matter of even greater importance in AR4 Working Group One Chapter 6.

    On the Government and Expert Review of the second order draft, the Reviewer for the Govt. of the United States of America wrote in comment 6-750:

    “The use of Wahl and Ammann (accepted) does not comply with WG1’s deadlines and all text based on this reference should be deleted. WG1’s rules require that all references be “published or in print” by December 16, 2005. Wahl and Ammann was “provisionally accepted” on that date, and not fully accepted until February 28, 2006, at which time no final preprint was available. Substantial changes were made in the paper between December 16, 2005 and February 28, 2006, including insertion of tables showing that the MBH98 reconstruction failed verification with r-squared statsistics, as had been reported by McIntyre and McKitrick in 2003. These tables were not available in the draft considered by WG1 when developing the second-order draft.”

    The Lead Authors’ response was:
    “Rejected- the citation is allowed under current rules.”

    It seems pretty hard for the Reviewer and the the Lead Authors to both be right on a simple matter of the timetable – unless some one changed the deadline after the Reviewer made his comment, which had to be before 2 June 2006 when the review period ended, and before the Lead Authors wrote their comments which would be some time after 4 July 2006.

    Could that really happen?
    Could this have something to do with those emails at the University of East Anglia?

    Here’s the timetable:
    Here’s an interesting memo with a pdf property date of July 1, 2006 :
    And here’s a very interesting email from Jonathan Overpeck that the UEA say the no longer hold but is in police custody:

    David Holland

  4. James says:

    “The next question involves how IPCC addresses flaws in its procedures to prevent recurrence of such a mistake. In doing so, it can maintain its standing as the science community’s, and indeed the world’s, most authoritative voice on climate change.”

    You are kidding, right?

  5. hro001 says:

    “reviewers asked that unclear terms be explained; the writing team did so in their responses to the comments, but did not change the terms in the actual text.”


    “We expect a great deal from the IPCC process, and, at least as far as Section 10.6.2 goes, those expectations were not met”

    Nor were these expectations met with regard to Section What Do Reconstructions Based on Palaeoclimatic Proxies Show (from WGI), as can be seen at:


  6. BajaLaJolla says:

    The real solution to the IPCC’s problem lies in a culture that doesn’t believe in the Scientific Method. Data transparency and honest debate are critical to real science, but the IPCC has been hijacked by “scientists” who cherry-pick their data, use bad statistics, and who deliberately refuse to allow independent verification of their “studies”. The reasons being is that those “studies” aren’t valid. And when asked politely for the data and methods, as Steve McIntyre has done for years, the only response he has gotten is slander (“Denier!”) and vituperative drivel.

    If the IPCC wants to redeem itself, it’s going to have to clean house of the Jones/Mann/Biaffra/Santer, etc. “Team”.

  7. Dave McK says:

    Don’t you just hate it when the editor jumps in and pollutes your good work with a glob of PC?

  8. MarkB says:

    “Some see this episode as an example of science righting itself through its ongoing self-correcting process”

    Although it doesn’t occur to the editor to say so, others see this as just another example of bias on the part of activists buried deep within the IPPC. Others see the absurd claim of quick melting of the entire Himalayan glacial body as an effort to scare the people of the Indian subcontinent into submission to IPPC-favored action.

    From the commenter above:

    “Or perhaps, consult with those authors who actually know the material.”

    They were consulted – the ridiculously erroneous claim was kept in the report IN SPITE of their consultation.

    You can explain it be suggesting that the most reviewed document in the history of science – we were told – somehow just had an “oops” moment, or you can be rational and believe that this was no accident. The Indian government has stridently rejected ALL demands that it accept goals to decrease CO2 output. Along comes an apocalyptic claim in their back yard. Take two, add two, get four.

  9. Geoffrey H Sherrington says:

    “And of the disappointments with the Copenhagen climate summit.”

    Who is disappointed? Why do you have to include a value judgement in a clinical argument?

    (The following is not meant to be clinical).

    The serious experienced scientist will generally see AR4 and Copenhagen as botched, immature, hurried work of generally low standard, much created to promote a social engineering direction. Good science is not done to a publishing timetable.

    One important aspect of the Climategate emails is that they allow a comparison of the state of climate science knowledge in (say) year 2000 with the certainty of outcome expressed as you describe in AR4, 2007. You ought to dig into the late 1990s uncertainties in the emails to see how many of them were given short dismissal in much the same way as AR4 reviewers’ requests were dismissed. A short note of receipt, sometimes, followed by sending to the waste paper bin, often.

    Science does not advance at the year 2000 to 2007 rate over so many topics, in general. Hypotheses might, but maturity and acceptance does not.

    Personally, as a senior and experienced scientist, I was not at all disappointed in Copenhagen. But then, I’m old enought to be a veteran of activism such as cancer from man-made chemicals, The Club of Rome, Limits to Growth, The Population Bomb, nuclear power hysteria, some fables of heavy metal poisoning, organic farming nonsense, homeopathy, acupuncture, astrology and so on.

    They have not enriched to world.

  10. RayG says:

    Very good detective work. Please apply similar skills and thoroughness to the WG2 reports on coastal damage, rising seas, the Amazon Basin, Hurricanes and severe storms, Pachauri’s financial conflicts of interests as reported in the Sunday Indian, etc. At that point a discussion of why any serious person should be called a “denier” for raising questions about the quality and believability of the IPCC’s work will be in order.

  11. mt says:

    Taking your advise and checking the primary resources, your paragraph about Hayley Fowler’s comments on glacier growth is inconsistent with the expert comments. Fowler has two comments listed in the expert comment PDF on page 25. One comment is about the 2005 Nature paper that the writing team couldn’t get (actually, the response seems to be that Fowler didn’t include the reference). However, the other comment makes note of references describing summer cooling and the evidence and explanation for expansion of some glaciers. The response for the glacier growth comment is “References reviewed”.

  12. Hu McCulloch says:

    Great reporting on this issue!

    However, I would disagree with your statement:

    The IPCC now has recanted the paragraph in question.

    The linked IPCC statement at http://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/news_and_events.htm in fact merely admits that an unspecified estimate that it had cited was not properly substantiated:

    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.

    I don’t read this as admitting that the claim was wrong, just that the proper primary source wasn’t cited.

    In fact, the beginning of the statement emphasizes that the IPCC stands by its conclusions in the Synthesis Report with respect to glacier loss in the Himalalayan region:

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

    I think most readers would conclude that the error was one of procedure, while the substance of the claim was correct.

  13. Vinny Burgoo says:

    ‘It is unclear where Chettri got the “Receding rivers of ice” table for her article in Down to Earth’.

    She and others ultimately got it from a chapter by C P Vohra in a 1981 book entitled _The Himalaya: aspects of change_ by J S Lall and A D Moddie. I haven’t identified the main intermediate source yet – actually, I’m not going to bother. I’ve had enough of trying to follow citation chains in allegedly scientific papers. The ‘science’ of impacts is in a very sorry state indeed. Authors make wild claims and justify them by citing research that they have either misunderstood or haven’t read at all. If the latter, it’s often clear that they have lifted the citation from an intermediate source that itself either misunderstood the cited paper or took the citation on trust from an even earlier intermediary. And on it goes, back it into the mists of (pre-WWW) time. It’s Chinese Whispers. It drives you mad trying to unravel it, and I’ve had enough. Irresponsible pricks. We’re supposed to change the way we live because of evidence like that?

  14. D.D.Freund says:

    Very informative study, thanks. I note that your pdf analyzing the reviewers comments contains at the bottom a statement to the effect that 70-80% of the water in the Indus valley rivers comes from glacier and snow melt, a figure I have seen convincingly questioned elsewhere. In the final version of the IPCC report I could only find an insinuation from this apparently erroneous statistic. What have you tracked down on this item, if anything?

  15. Pat Heenan says:

    The “Glaciergate” fiasco, so like the game of “Chinese Whispers” played at school, threatens to distract from the real issue.
    The Glaciers have been retreating for thousands of years, leaving behind the U-shaped valleys, fiords, and moraines that we use for ski-fields and boat harbors today.
    The River Thames last froze in 1804, as we came out of the Little Ice Age, ending the great skating festivals of Elizabethan and Restoration times.
    The Glaciers will return again, as we move from this charmed 10,000 year interglacial period we now live in.
    And that is the true peril of present Climate Change.

  16. I'm Scared says:

    OMG OMG the glaciers are melting. We better spend 30% of our income to keep the sea levels from burying civilization.

    Dear boobs. CLimate Alarmism is dead….give it a rest….no one cares about your bogus theories and CYA articles. Game over. get a life.

  17. Ian says:

    An interesting and thorough analysis – at least as far as it goes. You noted that:

    “Having identified “the curse,” one runs the risk of falling prey to it. The authors here vow to respond quickly to correct any error in this account.”

    What I offer is not an error in your analysis per se, but a point much like the one you made regarding the lack of discussion of the dichotomy between the claim that the glaciers would entirely disappear versus be reduced in extent by 80% (the latter using the wrong figures). Indeed, it impinges to some extent on that very point.

    In your analysis, you limited yourself to an examination of the second paragraph in section 10.6.2, and to Table 10.9. Had you also analyzed the introductory paragraph to the section, it would have made the statements in the offending paragraph even more risible, and offered up other possible errors. Let’s look that the introductory paragraph:

    “Himalayan glaciers cover about three million hectares or 17% of the mountain area as compared to 2.2% in the Swiss Alps. They form the largest body of ice outside the polar caps and are the source of water for the innumerable rivers that flow across the Indo-Gangetic plains. Himalayan glacial snowfields store about 12,000 km3 of freshwater. About 15,000 Himalayan glaciers form a unique reservoir which supports perennial rivers such as the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra which, in turn, are the lifeline of millions of people in South Asian countries (Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh). The Gangetic basin alone is home to 500 million people, about 10% of the total human population in the region.” (AR4, WGII, s. 10.6.2, p. 493)

    So what do we see in the first line? Why, the (approximately) correct statement as to the true extent of the Himalayan glaciers (the number they give is “rough”, but is equivalent to 30,000 sq. km.; Dyurgerov et al., 1997, apparently list it as 33,000 sq. km). Only one paragraph later, this has expanded to the (clearly incorrect) 500,000 sq. km. That mistake highlights the weakness of the review process you noted in your analysis.

    But let’s continue. The final sentence boldly states that:

    “The Gangetic basin alone is home to 500 million people, about 10% of the total human population in the region”.

    The “region” is defined as “South Asia”, comprising “Pakistan [approx 175 million], Nepal [approx 30 million], Bhutan [approx 700,000], India [approx 1.15 bn] and Bangladesh [approx. 155 million]”. The total population of the identified region is around 1.5 billion. Now, either the statement as to the population is wrong (so, it should be 150,000,000), or the percentage is wrong – take your pick. One of the government reviewers (Xiuqi Fang, Beijing Normal University, at p. 50 of the Expert Comments on the SOD) questioned what was meant by the term “region” (and was told it meant “South Asia”), but none of them picked up on the discrepancy as to percentage/population figure of the “Gangetic Basin”.

    Indeed, the reference to the Gangetic Basin was probably supposed to be the “Indo-Gangetic and Brahmaputra Basin”, and cover all three rivers. The now (in)famous WWF 2005 report reads thus (at p. 39):

    “In the context of India this spells bigger trouble for the 500 million inhabitants of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins, who rely on the perennial supply of melt-water from the Himalayas (Sharma 2001).”

    To be fair, I found a wide range of population estimates for this area.

    I would note that none of the statements in the first paragraph are supported by any references and I’m not in a position to comment definitively on the accuracy of any of them. However, it might be useful to check the statement that the glaciers (at approximately 30,000 sq km) cover 17% of the Himalayas (imagine using the 500,000 sq km figure for this! That would have given the Himalayas a total area of 2.9 million sq. km).

    I found one source (non-peer reviewed) that stated the total area of the Himalayas was 621,021 sq km (http://library.thinkquest.org/10131/start.shtml), which would make glacial coverage only 4.83% of the total area of the Himalayas (slightly more if you use the 33,000 sq km. figure I found for glacial area). In another source, the INDIAN Himalayas alone are stated to have a total area of 523,000 sq. km. (Afroz Ahmad, “Environmental Impact Assessment in the Himalayas: An Ecosystem Approach,” AMBIO, vol. 22, No.1, Feb 1993 at p.4).

    I did find a reference to the 17% figure in C.P. Vohra, “Some Problems of the Glacier Inventory in the Himalayas”, World Glacier Inventory, Proceedings of the Riederalp Workshop, September 1978), which contains this statement from a relatively old source (p. 68):

    “Some earlier estimates of ice had also been made by hydrologists from 1:1,000,000 scale maps. Wissman (1959) estimated that 33 200 km2 of the Himalayas are covered by ice and that this amounts to 17 per cent of the Himalayan area.”

    The only review comments on this point involved some minor grammatical correction; no one questioned the underlying statement or asked that it be supported by a citation (see Expert Comments on the SOD, at p. 50: comment by David Saltz). It may be that by saying “mountain area” they are trying to distinguish between various parts of the Himalayas, but that seems like a stretch to me – and it really cries out for a reference if it was intended to say that.

    Anyway, I think there’s much that could still be investigated here. The more one probes, the more uncertain the account becomes.

  18. Science is not Settled Yet says:

    The very problem with IPCC (or people using its Report Summaries) is the statement “the climate science is settled”, and when the reasons for GW are stated as definitive (AGW). With such a mind frame the critcicism is low when the statements sources follow the “well known, science-supported truth”; sometime the bell rings and people set-up a red warning flags, but – as the reported by you analysis shows – such a warnings are not followed. If some data contradict the mainstream then they are usually much more scrutinised. How IPCC can overcome this built-in bias (AGW) – this is the real problem here.
    As for the “settled climate science”I refer you to the CERN ongoing experiment:
    This points to very unclear yet area – how clouds are formed. The clouds and water aerosols have rather large impact on the balance of energy transfer from the Earth surface.
    Prof. Wegman has had published his opinion about the statistical methodology behind the research leading to the infamous HockeyStick. Have you seen any retraction in this aspect from researchers and from IPCC? How such things are handled even now?
    If the science is not settled yet then how can we make political and economical decisions? We force people buying insurances agains satellites falling off the sky or enforce strong building codes to prevent damages in such cases(probable, because the satellites and meteorites, and even airplanes, do fall off the sky). But what would be the general feeling of public about this?

    And as about the science and reviews. It seems that IPCC does not have sufficiently qualified people in charge of final reviews and drafts. It comes out of the above report of yours. Again and again, despite warning by some reviewers, the final people had put into report what followed from their preconceptions (glaciers retreat fast, because we have AGW).

    And as for science – it is very specialised. Not so many specialists can enforce their views on the mainstream climate science. Again you may refer to Prof. Wegman report on the social networks in the climate science. Few people define the mainstream science. And you know that Copernicus would not get today a research grant were the Ptolemeian System today’s mainstream astronomy science.

    The climate varies, and the rate of temperature changes in span of 10-20 years can be quite high. There was colder than today, and warmer than today. Even Medievial Warm Period was at least comparable with today. So we do experience variations in temperature. But to attribute it to antropohenic reasons seems to be premature, when you look at what we know about climate science, about physical processes (clouds, solar, water vapour) and the relaiability of numerical models used in the climate/meteorology work.
    The climate science seems to be not-settled yet, but the financial industry revolving around trading in CO2 seems to be already well organised. Follow the money. Google “TERI EU glaciers fund”
    You will find (surely this is the most urgent research need :) ):

    This seems to be a very simple example how one draws advantages using approved by him exaggregated statements.

  19. Sarah says:

    That deals with the incompetence of the IPCC.

    What about the incompetence of the scientists? There are reports of glaciers growing, reports which dismiss alarmist claims. It is a pity that Yale cannot discuss both sides of opinion rather than subscribing to a fixed position.

  20. Science is not Settled Yet says:

    It would be instructive to read the CLOUD research proposals:
    It might be nice to ask EC about reserach proposal from TERI on glaciers’research – how did they support the need for such a research.
    And ask, why there was no such a rush in funding basic research (CLOUD), potentially bringing much more valuable knowledge into climate science then casual study on movment of glaciers (which do move, obviously).

  21. Erl Happ says:

    From the concluding paragraph: ” IPCC must act quickly to repair the damage and return the world’s attention and focus to the real story – the causes and consequences of, and potential solutions for, anthropogenic climate change.”

    Hang on. Let’s make sure that climate change has an anthropogenic origin. There is as yet no evidence that a minute change in the composition of the atmosphere, however caused, is responsible for climate change. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that climate change, both warming and cooling, has occurred within the exceedingly short space of time for which we have good data, and that it proceeds from a variety of ‘natural’ modes of causation. The IPCC admits it is a long way short of understanding the ‘natural’ modes of causation (such as ENSO) are should therefore admit that is unable to attribute change to one thing or the other.

    The stance that you, and the IPCC, take is without foundation. Your argument has no merit whatsoever.

  22. Steve Spiller says:

    At the December 2009 AWG Conference in San Francisco – Jeff Kargel from the University of Arizona presented on behalf of a number of experts on the Himalayan Glacier controversy. I was struck by their conclusion that the glaciers only contribute 1.2% of the water flow in the three principal river systems. If that is accurate or close to being accurate, would it not call into question whether the complete disappearance of the glaciers would any significant effect on the river flows? Following is the quote, and following that the link to the full presentation.

    Page 41 “9. As we have calculated, melting glaciers (specifically, negative mass balance components of the melt) contribute an estimated 1.2% (perhaps factor of 2 uncertain) of total runoff of three of the most important drainages, the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra combined. The seasonal flow regulation influences and the negative mass balance is more important in local drainages close to the glacier sources, w[h]ere glaciers can dominate the hydrology in arid regions, but on the scale of the subcontinent, glaciers are secondary players in looming hydrologic problems, which stem more from population growth and inefficiency of water resource distribution and application.”

    The full presentation may be found at

  23. observer says:

    Short version: people are disinclined to check the veracity of statements they want to believe.

  24. J Gary Fox says:

    Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus – False in one thing, false in all,

    It is clear that “science” was not and is not the IPCC objective. The organizatio is focused on “proving” AGW and forcing governments to act.

    This crappy research is typical of the IPCC technical reports.

    What confidence can you have in a pseudo-scientific organization which instructs those involved to use the following confidence levels for decision making.


    Table 3. Quantitatively calibrated levels of confidence.

    Terminology Degree of confidence in being correct

    Very High confidence At least 9 out of 10 chance of being correct

    High confidence About 8 out of 10 chance

    Medium confidence About 5 out of 10 chance

    Low confidence About 2 out of 10 chance

    Very low confidence Less than 1 out of 10 chance

    “Medium Confidence” is a coin flip?

    IPCC’s “science” will go down as the greatest scientific hoax in history.

    Mad Magazine, April 1960 Issue “The Joker”

    Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Mackay, 1841)

    Princeton Pub, December 31, 2009 Various patrons whose names elude me.

    Return to Almora, Dr. Rajenda Pachauri 2101

  25. Science is not Settled Yet says:

    Sceptics are financed by Oil :)

    This one seems to be quite a large multinational :)

  26. BK says:

    Actually, the use of “Its” is grammatically correct here. Sorry but it’s true. “Its” is used as a possessive pronoun. “It’s” is used as a contraction for “it is” or “it has”. “Its” here is referring to the glacier’s total area and used as a possessive pronoun therefore it’s correct.

  27. steve says:

    As long as you are trying to salvage some semblance of credibility for the IPCC, don’t forget to look into these minor “issues” that have recently arisen…

    TeriGate and PepsiHondaTeriGate and TeriProtectedForestGate
    WaveEnergyGate, new DissertationGates and EcoterrorReferenceGates

    Oh, and this just in to our newsroom…Canadianwildfiretourismgate.

    Good luck…

  28. Don’t believe everything you think.
    Don’t believe you notice everything you think.

    Both science and religion offer external assistance to the human brain, which is not perfect in the factual and emotional departments, respectively.


  29. SoundOff says:

    It may be that the requested revisions were actually made to the paragraph in question. Perhaps one of the last revisions was applied to the original text rather than the previously revised text thereby erasing the effect of the earlier revisions. We call this version control in the software world, or lack of it in this case.

  30. Taylor Fleet says:

    Thank you for such a clear, careful exposition; may this piece become a model for responsible journalism.

  31. Tom Wiita says:

    Does everyone read Hu McCulloch’s comment at 8:26pm the same way I read it? I read him saying that “the substance of the claim was correct.” I read Hu as saying that “the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high” is correct. How can any sentient being, after all this thorough dissection, say that is correct? If you need any further explanation of what is wrong with the climate science embodied in the UNIPCC, you need search no further than 8:26pm above.

  32. Thank you for such a clear, careful exposition

  33. Ian says:

    Ah, the curse. Just a small point, but you quote the relevant extract from IPCC AR4 in part as follows:

    “Its [sic] total area will likely shrink [...]”

    You’ve inserted “sic” (short for sic erat scriptum, meaning “thus it was written”), implying an error in the form of “Its”.

    The use of “Its”, here a possessive, was in fact correct. The “sic” should not have been inserted, as no error in use has occurred.

    (Unless you’ve mistyped the quote, and it actually said “It’s …” in the original).