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The glacier show – a comedy in many parts

Posted by Richard Thursday, January 28, 2010 , ,

To investigate fears of retreating glaciers in the Himalayas, the British government in 2001 funded a major field study code-named "Sagarmatha". Reporting in June 2004, it found that the threat, that all of the region's glaciers may soon disappear, "would seem unfounded" and that "the catastrophic water shortages forecast by some experts are unlikely to happen for many decades, if at all."

Of the "experts" who were forecasting catastrophe, by far the most vocal was Dr Sayed Hasnain, the scientist currently at the centre of the "Galciergate" storm. Yet, days before the British government report was officially published, Hasnain was telling the media – including the New Scientist - that "... after 40 years, most of the glaciers will be wiped out and then we will have severe water problems."

This was despite the fact that Dr Hasnain had assisted the Sagarmatha team and was aware of its findings. And, when the IPCC Working Group II came to write up the section on Himalayan glaciers, it ignored the Sagarmatha report in preference to Dr Hasnain's alarmism – dating back to 1999 - despite it having been discredited by the more recent British study, which had been commissioned in response to that self-same alarmism.

Ironically, Working Group II was also funded by the British government (Defra) from a grant of £1,436,162, which included support for the chair of WGII, Professor Martin Parry, formerly a Met Office climate scientist and currently at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London.

A key figure in this drama, however, is Dr Syed Hasnain (pictured right) whose climate "activism" goes back to 1999 and the now infamous article in the Indian environmental magazine, Down to Earth which was published on 30 April 1999 and subsequently on the India environmental portal. Under the title "Glaciers beating retreat", it was here that there is the first public record of the claim that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035.

We know now that this was seen by environmental journalist Fred Pearce, who according to his own account telephoned Hasnain to check with him that he had not been misquoted and then incorporated the 2035 figure in his own article in the New Scientist on 5 June 1999. An abstract of the same report is to be found in the London Evening Standard on 3 June under the headline: "Glaciers to 'melt by 2035'."

That, though, was by no means the full extent of Dr Hasnain's contribution to climate alarmism that year. In August 1999, he was in Birmingham University, England, addressing an international meeting of the members of the World Meteorological Organisation's commission on snow and ice. His speech was trailed by The Times and, although this does not appear to be online, it is replicated elsewhere.

It is here that we have a claim that "Himalayan glaciers could vanish within 40 years because of global warming, according to new research" and a report that: "One of the researchers involved, Syed Hasnain, of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said that studies indicated that the glaciers in the region could be gone by 2035."

Even then, Hasnain has not finished. He pops up on 5 November 1999 in the Christian Science Monitor in a piece entitled: "Glaciers in the Himalayas melting at rapid rate." Under the by-line of Robert Marquand we read:

"Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world," according to a study by the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI). "If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high."

"Even if the waters dry up over 60 to 100 years, that is an eco-disaster of stunning proportions," says Syed Iqbal Hasnain, the head of ICSI, and a leading professor of environment at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
We find Hasnain again on 31 March 2000, this time in The Independent, in a piece headed: "Meltdown in the mountains". The name of the author is of some interest – it is Fred Pearce, who wrote the New Scientist piece in June 1999. This time, less than a year later, we are told:
Mankind has hit the defrost button. By 2035 huge glaciers high in the mountains may no longer exist. Thousands of local people live in fear of drowning in the melt water. Can science do anything to help?

Glaciers cover around one-sixth of the Himalayas. Taken together with Tibet to the north and the Karakorum to the west, this region contains most of the surviving snow and ice outside the polar regions - thousands of cubic kilometres of frozen water, much of it dating back to the last ice age.

But each summer now, more ice and snow melts than is replenished by the monsoons. The glaciers are shrinking. The story of the extent of their demise has been slow to get out. Up here, far from roads and power lines and science labs, much of the information on the state of these glaciers has been anecdotal. But, as scientists begin to collate data, a picture is emerging of meltdown on the roof of the world.

Syed Hasnain of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi presented the most detailed survey yet to a meeting of glaciologists in Birmingham last August. His four-year study for the UN's International Commission on Snow and Ice concluded: "Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world. If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by 2035 is very high."

It was a devastating and largely unexpected finding. Only five years ago, glaciologists on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that, even under pessimistic assumptions about global warming, the region's glaciers "should continue to exist into the 22nd century".

The melting of glaciers is emerging as one of the least ambiguous signs of climate change. Amid arcane arguments about the meaning of yearly fluctuations in the weather, it is hard to argue with the wholesale melting of some of the largest glaciers in the world. Mankind, it seems, has hit the defrost button. And while glaciers are thawing out from Peru to the Alps, from Kenya to New Guinea, nowhere is the meltdown faster than in the Himalayas.
For the next instalment, we have to wait until 13 April 2001, when Hasnain makes another guest appearance, this time in Frontline magazine, from The Hindu stable. There, we are told of the "Glacier meltdown", in a report which cites at length Syed Iqbal Hasnain of the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Then we get the "money quote":
It is not surprising, therefore, that a perceptible impact of global warming has been in evidence in the Himalayan glaciers over the last few decades. A 1999 report by the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology (WGHG) of the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI), constituted in 1995, said: "Glaciers in the Himalayas 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."
At this point, the British government has taken a hand, having commissioning the Sagarmatha survey, headed by two British scientists, Gwyn Rees and David Collins. Later, Rees is to tell an interviewer that, "having heard alarming predictions of Himalayan glaciers disappearing within the next 40 years," he teamed up with eminent glaciologists "to develop new forecasting techniques which will give us a better understanding of how glaciers are likely to respond as the climate changes."

One of those "eminent glaciologists" was, of course, Dr Syed Hasnain, and in June 2004 Rees and Collins reported that the threat, that all of the region's glaciers may soon disappear, "would seem unfounded" and that "the catastrophic water shortages forecast by some experts are unlikely to happen for many decades, if at all."

There is evidently pre-release publicity because, on 27 April 2004, the Indian Express reports on, "The Great Melt & the Great Thirst", telling us of the survey results, which come "... amid speculation that Himalayan glaciers will disappear over the next 40 years." Says S I Hasnain, Vice Chancellor, University of Calicut, "This information will be vital for policy-makers ... ". No timescale for glacier melting is given.

A day later, however, on 28 April 2004, Hasnain is talking to the Indo-Asian News Service (published in multiple outlets – of which one is linked). Its story is headed: "Glaciers Feeding Indian Rivers May be Wiped Out".

"Glaciers feeding the Ganga, Yamuna, Indus and the Brahmaputra rivers may be wiped out in 40 years," it tells us, with Hasnain saying: "... after 40 years, most of these glaciers will be wiped out and then we will have severe water problems."

And, interestingly, this is followed on 8 May 2004 by a news article – this time without a by-line – in the New Scientist. This, without naming it, refers to the Sagarmatha survey, telling us that "the great rivers of northern India and Pakistan will run strongly for the next 40 years and then die away, bringing flood followed by famine."

The problem is global warming, which has already increased glacier melting by up to 30 percent, said the report, continuing with:
"But after 40 years, most of the glaciers will be wiped out and then we will have severe water problems," says Syed Iqbal Hasnain of Calicut University, Kerala, reporting the results of a three-year study by British, Indian and Nepalese researchers.
This is then followed by another media report on 4 June 2004. Once again we see a reference to Syed Iqbal Hasnain, this time of the International Commission for Snow and Ice: "Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world. If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 is very high," he is cited as saying.

Things then seem to go quiet for a while, but the 2035 claim re-appears on 13 December 2006 in a piece headed: "Retreating Glaciers of the Himalayas - Global warming threatens life along the Ganges River".

Thus, we see in the report: The Working Group on Himalayas (WGHG) of the international commission for snow and ice, constituted in 1995, recently affirmed, "Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world, and if the present rate continues the likelihood of their disappearing by 2035 is very high." This is evidently recycled news.

Hasnain gets an outing though, two days later on 15 December 2006, yet again in Down to Earth magazine. In "Ice on a slide" we get the full works, the "likely to disappear by 2035.... ", glaciers wiped out in 40 years and a recycled Hasnain quote: "In about 40 years, most of these glaciers will be wiped out and then we will have severe water problems,' says, vice-chancellor of Calicut University, who now apparently led the Sagarmatha study.

By 15 July 2007 Hasnain is widening out his interests, arguing: "It is not just greenhouse gases which are leading to melting glaciers, but it is also increased human activity and development in the Himalayas." He develops this theme in the Financial Express on 9 June 2008. By that time, he is working for Dr Pachauri's TERI and he estimates "that Himalayan glaciers will be gone in 20-30 years."

He repeats that on 16 July 2008, predicting that "the Himalayan glaciers will be gone in 20-30 years because of climate change as well as the Asian Brown Cloud." And that would make many of the great rivers including the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus run dry by 2035.

Less than a month later, Hasnain is back in print, this time in a feature by ABC News on 8 August 2008. The river that rushes through the Lahaul-Spiti Valley is fed almost entirely by melt from the surrounding glaciers.

"I've never seen such a high water level in this river," says Syed Hasnain, a senior glaciologist at the Energy Resources Institute who has been visiting the Chhota Shigri glacier for 23 years. "This is 100 percent glacial melt," he adds, standing at the base of the glacier, yelling over the sound of the river. "After 40 years or 50 years, there won't be any flow in this river, and the entire valley will be dried up."

As the piece concludes, we get, in fine apocryphal style: "We are going to be doomed in the future," Hasnain says. The "entire global community will be affected. It's not only the region will be affected." A year later, on 15 April 2009, he is telling the New York Times that "Himalayan glaciers are expected to lose 75 percent of their ice by 2020."

By then, the Carnegie and EU grants are more or less in the bag and on 13-14 May 2009, Hasnain attends an EU-funded seminar. This is addressed by Gwyn Rees who tells his audience – Hasnain included – that it is "Unlikely that all glaciers will vanish by 2035!"

This is almost exactly ten years since Down to Earth published Hasnain's claim that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, the very claim that Rees was subsequently able to refute, but is now embedded in the IPPC report.

Neither Rees nor Hasnain, in the intervening period, had changed their views. In fact, in September 2009, Hasnain is in the Canadian Globe and Mail where, as "one of India's leading glaciologists", he is said to believe "the Himalayas may be denuded of all snow and ice in as little as 20 years."

On 9 November, however, V K Raina, ex deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India was to publish his report on glaciers, challenging Hasnain's alarmism, now enbodied in the IPCC report. Hasnain is quick to defend the 2035 figure, allowing himself to be styled as "author of the original IPCC report" in Indian NDTV.

Despite the Raina report having been commissioned by Jairam Ramesh, the Indian minister of state for environment & forests, Dr R K Pachauri joins the fray and condemns it as "totally unsubstantiated scientific opinion". Then, in December, he was incautious enough to brand it "voodoo science". Hasnian, meanwhile, in an interview with the BBC, was still supporting the 2035 claim.

Shortly though, the "Glaciergate" storm was about to break, proving Rees was right all along. But Hasnain then is to deny that he ever used the 2035 figure, or made any timed predictions, telling his interviewers that he was not an "astrologer". And, while his view had, at that time, prevailed, so had that irony of the British taxpayer funding the study to knock it down and then to build it back up again.

Even yesterday, though, Hasnain was unrepentant, telling the South Asia Times that it is "ridiculous" to assume that the glaciers are not melting. This was matched by a piece in the Times of India headlined, "Himalayan glaciers here to stay". It told us:
The prediction that glaciers would melt by 2035 by Professor Syed Iqbal Hasnain may have landed the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman R K Pachauri in a tight spot, but data collected by glaciologists across the Himalayan region shows that such claims do not hold water, and the major rivers originating from the Himalayas would continue to flow for the years to come as the glaciers are going to stay.

Glaciologist Milap Chand Sharma from Jawaharlal Nehru University says after studying 27 glaciers in Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, he has found that the melting taking place is normal. His conclusion is based on study of the behaviour of glaciers from 1975 to 2008.

The Miyar glacier in Lahaul region covers an area of 27 square km. Since 1971, it has receded by just 150 meters. If it continues to melt at this pace, it would take around 3,000 years for it to melt completely, he added.
You really, really could not make this up. But then, we don't need to when we have Hasnain and Pachauri and their glacier show – a comedy in many parts - to entertain us all.