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Hazards of repeating gray science

January 20, 2010

The United Nations has suffered some embarrassment over a report issued by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The benchmark report, issued in 2007 under the leadership of Rajendra Pachauri, made the rather alarming claim that the Earth’s glaciers are melting so quickly that they will disappear completely in the Himalayas as early as 2035. The embarrassing part isn’t the claim itself, but how it got the data to support it.

Another Reed Business Information publication, New Scientist, published an article in 1999 in which it quoted Indian glaciologist Syed Hasnain, making that prediction. Apparently Hasnain didn’t cite any specific data, has never repeated the claim anywhere else, and has since characterized the comment as speculation.

Nonetheless, the comment made it into the IPCC report. Other scientists have expressed their dismay over the statement and suggest the problem is not nearly that bad. They also suggest that a group as influential as the IPCC should not be using unreviewed “gray” data, but only information from appropriately peer reviewed publications. IPCC authors seem to be standing by the comment’s validity, even if its source is murky.

If the glaciers are receding, it is a serious problem. If you consider that much of the runoff from the Himalayas drains south into India and Bangladesh, those basins face a time of probable flooding followed by desertification. In a part of the world where there are large populations managing a meager existence, this is not an encouraging picture to consider.