World misled over glacier meltdown: Report
London: A warning that most of the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035 owing to climate change is likely to be retracted after the United Nations body that issued it admitted to a series of scientific blunders.
Two years ago, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) headed by India's Rajendra Pachauri, issued a benchmark report that claimed to have incorporated the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming.
A central claim was that world's glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.
In the last few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC's 2007 report, the Sunday Times reported today.
It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephonic interview with Syed Hasnain, an Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the report said.
Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was a "speculation" and was not supported by any formal research, the report added.
If confirmed it would be one of the most serious failures yet seen in climate research.
The IPCC was set up to ensure that world leaders had the best possible scientific advice on climate change.
Rajendra Pachauri has previously dismissed criticism of the Himalayas claim as "voodoo science" and last week the IPCC refused to comment on the report.
The blunder was spotted by climate scientists led by Graham Cogley, a geographer from Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who had long been unhappy with the IPCC's finding.
He traced the IPCC claim back to the New Scientist and then contacted Fred Pearce, the journalist who carried out the original interview for the New Scientist.
Pearce then re-interviewed Hasnain, who confirmed that his 1999 comments had been "speculative" and published the update in the New Scientist.
Pearce said he contacted Hasnain in India in 1999 after spotting his claims in an Indian magazine.
"Hasnain told me then that he was bringing a report containing those numbers to Britain," Pearce said.
"I have obtained a copy and it does not say what Hasnain said. In other words it does not mention 2035 as a date by which any Himalayan glaciers will melt," Pearce added.
Meanwhile, Cogley pointed out "The reality, that the glaciers are wasting away, is bad enough. 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," he added.
Professor Murari Lal, who oversaw the chapter on glaciers in the IPCC report, said he would recommend that the claim about glaciers be dropped.
"If Hasnain says officially that he never asserted this, or that it is a wrong presumption, then I will recommend that the assertion about Himalayan glaciers be removed from future IPCC assessments," Lal said.
The New Scientist report was apparently forgotten until 2005 when WWF cited it in a report called An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China.
The report credited Hasnain's 1999 interview with the New Scientist. This report then became a key source for the IPCC when Lal and his colleagues came to write the section on the Himalayas and suggested that the melting of the glaciers was "very likely".
The IPCC defines "very likely" as having a probability of greater than 90 percent.
Glaciologists find such figures inherently ludicrous, pointing out that most Himalayan glaciers are hundreds of feet thick and could not melt fast enough to vanish by 2035 unless there was a huge global temperature rise.
Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University, said: "A small glacier such as the Dokriani glacier is up to 120 metres thick. A big one would be several hundred metres thick and tens of kilometers long. The average is 300 metres thick so to melt one at 5 metres a year would take 60 years."
Scientists have also questioned how the IPCC could have allowed such a mistake into print. Perhaps, the most likely reason was lack of expertise, they pointed.
Lal himself has admitted that he knows little about glaciers.
"I am not an expert. 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," he said.