Glaciergate – Shoddy Scholarship and Sensationalism Hamper Climate “Science”

The story of the latest controversy to strike the world of climate science reads like a master’s thesis gone wrong, but may be a prime example of academic citations at their worst. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report intended to lay out the latest and most detailed research in the field. One of the most alarming claims was that glaciers in the Himalayas would disappear by 2035.

Glaciologists had a problem with that one. The glaciers in question are hundreds of feet thick. Professor Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, quoted in an article by Jonathan Leake and Chris Hastings for the London Times on January 10 said, “The average [glacier thickness] is 300 metres . . . so to melt one even at 5 metres a year would take 60 years.” The current annual rate of glacial melt in the region is 2-3 feet or less.

Geographer Graham Cogley from Trent University in Ontario, Canada was so convinced the IPCC claim was ridiculous, he started going through the report’s footnotes. The original citation was to a WWF study, “An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts on Nepal, India, and China,” published in 2005. It, in turn, cited a 1999 article in the New Scientist by Fred Pearce, who attributed the glacial melt estimation to an Indian scientist teaching at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Syed Hasnain.

Cogley tracked Hasnain down and discovered his comments about the Himalayan glaciers were based purely on speculation. The estimate had never been formally published or subjected to peer review. Granted, the IPCC did cite the WWF study, but in defending the citation, Professor Murari Lal, who was in charge of that portion of the report, admitted he didn’t know much about the subject. “I am not an expert on glaciers, and I have not visited the region so I have to rely on credible published research. The comments in the WWF report were made by a respected Indian scientist and it was reasonable to assume he knew what he was talking about.”

That statement alone leaves thesis and dissertation directors the world over scratching their heads in puzzled amazement. If graduate students are routinely taught to double and triple confirm sources before including them in the papers they write to earn their academic credentials, how can the UN get away with what is at best shoddy scholarship? Professor Cogley, also quoted in the Times article, asked exactly that.

“The reality, that the glaciers are wasting away, is bad enough,” he said. “But they are not wasting away at the rate suggested by this speculative remark and the IPCC report. The problem is that nobody who studied this material bothered chasing the trail back to the original point when the claim first arose. It is ultimately a trail that leads back to a magazine article and that is not the sort of thing you want to end up in an IPCC report.”

The state of climate science scholarship has been called into even greater question, however, by the denunciation of sea level claims made by a professor of ocean physics at Potsdam, Stefan Rahmstorf. Just prior to the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009, Rahmstorf published research indicating sea levels will rise six feet by 2100, an event that would threaten coastal communities and redraw the map of the continents.

Rahmstrof based his prediction on a recorded 7-inch increase in sea levels from 1881 to 2001, extrapolating the data into the future in a way that stunned his colleagues. Simon Holgate, an expert on sea level studies at the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Merseyside said Rahmstrof’s methods were “simplistic,” published in advance of the Copenhagen meeting to “attract headlines.”

Holgate pointed out, that if the glaciers in the Alps and Himalayas are gone by 2050, the water to contribute to such a dramatic sea level increase would have to come from remaining ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland. Those regions do contain enough frozen water to boost sea levels by as much as 200 feet, but the melt in those regions is negligible at best.

The two incidents, examined in tandem, do even more to discredit the climate change claims they purport to advance. If the Himalayan glaciers are only melting 2 to 3 feet a year, they are not contributing to catastrophic sea level increases, and sea levels can’t continue to grow in epic proportions to the year 2100 if the glaciers are going to be gone by 2035.

Both incidents also follow all too closely on the heels of the Climategate scandal in November and December 2009. After a hacker breached email security at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, it was revealed that between 1996 and 2000, climate scientists had filtered the data they released in an effort to preserve their funding for studies intended to prove the existence of man-made global warming.

The fundamental scientific method that has been in place since the 19th century holds that through observation, experimentation, and the collection of data, hypotheses are formulated and tested. You may start out with one thesis, that is then altered by the results of research. You do not formulate a thesis and then look only for the material which validates your idea. Invalidation is the heart of scientific inquiry.

Clearly the IPCC had a thesis: “The glaciers are melting.” Rather than offering the best research in the field from respected glaciologists, they found a citation that proved their preconceived notion. Professor Rahmstrof used quantifiable data regarding sea levels, but extrapolated it with little to no comparison of changed environmental conditions from 1881 forward. While CO2 levels are currently at record highs in our atmosphere, the world is, on average, no warmer than it was in 1998, a factor surely relevant to both sea levels and glacial melt.

There is no question that the world’s climate is changing, but the causes and ultimate course of those changes have not been conclusively settled. Protecting endangered ecosystems, working for cleaner air and water, and moving away from the consumption of fossil fuels in favor of modern, renewable energy sources are all excellent goals. Each one has valid philosophical, scientific, and political underpinnings. None of those goals, however, will be helped by “science” cheapened by poor scholarship and sensationalism.

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