A very experienced hydrologist using the internet handle Potentilla has been commenting at Harmless Sky recently. This post is based on what he has said with some general context and observations added by me.

Regarding a recent article in the Guardian, Potentilla commented:

Here is a good example of how Guardian journalists allow themselves to be lead by the nose by scientists eager to make their research relevant.

World’s glaciers melting at accelerated pace, leading scientists say

This article is by the paper’s US environment correspondent, Suzanne Goldberg, dateline 20th January 2010. It’s based on what Lonnie Thompson had to say in ‘a conference call with reporters’, and there is additional input from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Evidently this was quite a media event with a cast list that might cause any AGW sceptic to prick up his or her ears.

Given that the story relies on published scientific research, Guardian readers are likely to just accept it as holy writ.

The purpose of the article is clearly damage limitation in the wake of the scandal involving the IPCC’s unjustifiable prediction that the Himalayan glaciers may disappear by 2035.

Lonnie Thompson is best known — to the general public — for the claims made about his research by Al Gore in his film An Inconvenient Truth. These centred on research that seemed to indicate that the ice on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro would soon disappear because of climate change, and also what Gore described as “Dr Thompson’s Thermometer”, but was in fact the infamous Mann Hockey Stick graph.

Since those heady days when it seemed that most people, and all politicians, would believe anything they were told about global warming, things have changed a bit.

The suggestion that global warming was destroying ice cover on Kilimanjaro has been shown to be unfounded and Lonnie Thompson’s steadfast refusal to archive ice-core data on which much of his other research is based so that other scientists can reproduce his findings has been the subject of much controversy.  Shades of Climategate.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a highly politicised US environmental lobby group, were responsible for the myth that 98% of scientists believe that AGW is real. This finding dominated discussion of climate science for years and did much to foster the belief that ‘the science is settled’. Apparently the only basis for their claim was a rather sparse response to a poll of their own, no doubt environmentally committed, members. A list of other contentious utterances from this organisation would be far too long to include here.

Potentilla continues:

There is an alarming paragraph in the Guardian article referring to a paper, of which Thompson was a co-author:

Glacier melt is also threatening water supplies, the UCS said, pointing to a 2008 study in the Himalayas which showed less water flowing from the glaciers to the great rivers such as the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra that sustain the Indian subcontinent.

Interesting I thought, an actual study on the effect of climate change on the hydrology of the south Asian rivers.

The title of Thompson’s paper is ‘Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources‘, and was published in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), the American Geophysical Union’s very prestigious journal.

The abstract of the article ends with this sentence (emphasis added):

If climatic conditions dominating the mass balance of Naimona’nyi extend to other glaciers in the region, the implications for water resources could be serious as these glaciers feed the headwaters of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra Rivers that sustain one of the world’s most populous regions.

Closer examination shows that the study only addresses mass loss from a single glacier in the Himalayas. It does not address the hydrology of the rivers at all. I don’t think there is even a single hydrologist on the crowded study team.

The scientists may think they have covered themselves with their speculation about the potential impact on water supplies by inserting the “if” and “could be”. But this is disingenuous. They have not even addressed the hydrology in a serious way. The last sentence in the abstract appears to have been inserted to make the research more relevant, a tactic that is quite common. I have served on funding committees for research organisations and the potential impact i.e. importance, of research is a component that is given high marks in funding decisions.

The symbiotic relationship between scientists, trying to advance their career interests and journalists, who do not investigate what they are writing about, seems to be a common phenomenon.

What is actually quite ironic is that during periods when glaciers are losing mass balance as a result of melting, low flows in downstream rivers actually increase. Note the Guardian’s statement, [evidently based on what the Union of Concerned Scientists has told their ace environment correspondent]  that:

“…a 2008 study in the Himalayas which showed less water flowing from the glaciers”

[which, of course is Lonnie Thompson’s ground breaking paper on the Himalayan glaciers]

If the glaciers are currently losing mass balance due to melting, this statement is incorrect.

And bear in mind that this article in the Guardian is an obvious attempt to re-establish confidence in IPCC warnings after the recent ‘all gone by 2035′ debacle that the Himalayan glaciers are retreating and the consequences will be catastrophic.

I think this example is a good illustration of how we have got into this mess. There is a huge gap between the earnest and serious efforts of many climate scientists, glaciologists etc and the implied certainty of climate catastrophe that you read in the mainstream media (MSM). The link across the gap is very weak but most scientists seem to “go along” with it, or keep quiet because inflating the importance of research is in their interests. The MSM and politicians promote it because presumably catastrophe sells.

It is a misconception that loss of the Himalayan glaciers would affect hundreds of millions of people. Glaciers have a limited effect on the hydrology of large river basins such as the Ganges primarily because the glaciated area is only 1.6% of the whole river basin area. Communities a short distance downstream from a glacier benefit from increased low flows in the summer months. This is offset by the water generally being laden with sediment. For people living a great distance downstream, the loss of the glaciated area would not be noticeable though it would be picked up by accurate flow monitoring stations.

Dry season flows in the lower part of large river basins are sustained primarily by groundwater discharge not glacier melt. If we take the results from the global climate models at face value they actually predict an increase in precipitation in the Himalayas. So overall the IPCC should have concluded that there would be more water available in rivers with sources in the Himalayas.

Despite the  title of Thompson’s  paper, ‘Mass loss on Himalayan glacier endangers water resources,’ it does not address in any meaningful way the endangerment of water resources. The type of research that would be necessary to support the statements in the paper would involve developing a hydrological model of the whole Ganges River Basin, calibrating it to recorded flows and water usage and then simulating river flows without the glaciers.  This is relatively straightforward in concept but nothing like this was attempted in the GRL paper.   The paper is only about mass loss from a single glacier. The title appears to have been chosen by the authors to inflate the importance of the paper and does not reflect the content accurately. Although this is a GRL paper and peer-reviewed, clearly no attempt was made by the reviewers to correct the impression given by the title.

Maybe we should not be too hard on the Guardian journalist as the title and conclusion of the paper misrepresents the actual research conducted. It is discouraging that “peer-reviewed” papers can be used by others to promote the notion of climate catastrophe when the scientific research does not support, or even address, the speculative conclusion.

It would seem that most of the blame here lies with the scientific community though it is a shame that the MSM seem to have abdicated their traditional role of investigative journalism.

Anyone reading the Guardian article who is not very familiar with this area of research and bear in mind that this is a newspaper that is much read by policy makers and journalists would quite reasonably assume that it carried the authority of published scientific research. And they would be right.

The IPCC’s oft repeated claims that all the findings in its reports have been peer reviewed is a  cornerstone of the climate change debate.

During the last week or so we have discovered that that is not true. But what are we to think when the Guardian, in conjunction with the Union of Concerned Scientists and a very well known climate scientist, tell us that although there may have been a problem with the IPCC’s estimate of when the Himalayan glaciers might cease to exist, there is no need to worry about the integrity of their other predictions. The rest of the science is robust, they say, and this was just an isolated incident.

The mantra that is used again and again to bolster many of the more alarming claims that are being made by climate scientists is ‘this is peer reviewed science’. There can be little doubt that the paper referred to above was peer reviewed, and it certainly appeared in one of the most respected scientific journals. Yet there still seems to be room for considerable doubt about what it says because it’s primary conclusion is speculative and not supported by the narrow scope of the scientific research reported in the paper.

Potentilla concludes:

A recent presentation at an AGU meeting in December dismisses the concern over the impact of Himalayan glacier loss on water supply with a conclusion similar to Potentilla.

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, where 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.

Glaciology research in the Himalayas is undoubtedly of value and is relevant for understanding climate variability.  Understanding of glacier hydrology is also important for hydrological studies of the Himalayan rivers as one component of a broader investigation.

However in the Thompson paper, an assumption was made about the impact of the glacier research findings on the hydrology of major rivers in southeast Asia. It is the assumption that has been used to promote the research with the media, not the actual research findings of the study.

In the aftermath of Climategate, with accusations of partiality and subterfuge being exercised in the peer review process, and growing suspicion about researchers who refuse to archive their data so that it can be checked by those outside the charmed circle of climate scientists, there is still much more to be concerned about.

11 Responses to “Lonnie Thompson and the Himalayan Glaciers”

  1. […] Right on cue, the alarmists dig a deeper hole with more misinformation spoon fed to a compliant (and ignorant) […]

  2. When a journalist uses the tile “environmental reporter” what they really mean is “I failed math & science, but I am qualified to re-print and press releases from scientists if I feel it will help the cause”

  3. With every scandal, starting with the Hockey stick graph, the Mantra of IPCC and the alarmists, repeated over and over and over again – “HERE IS NO NEED TO WORRY ABOUT THE INTEGRITY OF THEIR OTHER PREDICTIONS. THE REST OF THE SCIENCE IS ROBUST, .., AND THIS WAS JUST AN ISOLATED INCIDENT. And IT HAS BEEN CORROBORATED BY OTHER RESEARCH ETC

    What a lie! And Potentilla and TonyN nail this lie good and proper.

  4. […] Harmless Sky – Climate, the countryside and landscapes » Lonnie … […]

  5. I really worry that politically distorted science will so contaminate general environmental science that the real and immediate problems of our globe will remain unresolved.

    Perhaps it is time for leading scientific figures (whomever they may be) to show leadership, and step in (with or without the imprimatur of relevant scientific bodies)to lay out exactly what “facts” are agreed on, and which areas still require further study to reach any level of agreement/acceptance.

    Yes, I know that “consensus” is not science, but there has now been so much distortion of data and conclusions therefrom, that I, for one, no longer can recognise what is accepted or real scientific analysis.

  6. Peter Pond, #5:

    Your concern that climate change alarmism is obscuring other very real and solvable environmental problems is shared by many contributors to this blog. Our politicians obsession with global warming must also be diverting funds, and effort, away from finding solutions.

  7. There is a report by Jonathan Leake in the Sunday Times which provides some interesting background to Lonnie Thompsons paper:


  8. Well Done!

    This informed piece cuts to the heart of the issues we have with ‘peer reviewed science’ and ‘authoritative references’.

    It should be fundamental reading matter for any seeker after truth in this field, and I trust it will be referenced by many commentators…

    [TonyN: Thanks!]

  9. To find where the money is diverted, look here….


  10. TonyN and Potentilla

    Thanks for an excellent summary on Himalayan Glaciers and the IPCC process.


  11. hey, perhaps this post is actually a bit off topic but the point is, I have been searching your web site it looks truly tasteful..I’m resulting in a new blog and i am hard-pressed to make it again appear great, and supply high quality content. I have learned significantly here and I await more updates and will probably be returning.

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