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False alarm, stay calm

Friday, 22 January 2010 - 9:44pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

He had the wisdom to put his money on sound scientific evidence to the contrary that came from a septuagenarian geologist and has justifiably come out trumps at the end.

Jairam Ramesh, the Union minister for environment and forests, has had the last laugh in his duel with the United Nations-led Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the critical issue of the melting of all the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 as projected by the Nobel Prize-winning international body in its 2007 report.

He had the wisdom to put his money on sound scientific evidence to the contrary that came from a septuagenarian geologist and has justifiably come out trumps at the end.

The IPCC drew a lot of flak for its untenable prediction and is planning to withdraw its report in the face of recent damaging revelations about the basis on which its report was prepared.

As it has turned out now, the IPCC had based its significant global warning about vanishing glaciers on a news story reportedly carried by the New Scientist, a popular science journal way back in 1999. 

It has emerged further that this news item which said that global warming would see the last of all the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 itself was based on a telephonic talk the reporter had with an Indian scientist working in the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. 

This cataclysmic claim has since been conceded by its author as mere “speculation not supported by any formal research”. 

That the prestigious IPCC, that was formed to provide the best possible advice on climate change to world leaders, had gone about scaring the whole world about impending doomsday on such flimsy grounds is hard to understand.  It certainly makes a huge dent on its credibility and trustworthiness.

By contrast, the septuagenarian VK Raina, a retired deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), chairman of the Himalayan Glaciology Monitoring Committee and author of the Glacier Atlas of India has all along been pointing out that data for the past 200 years on the Himalayan glaciers had shown that there was nothing abnormal about their melting and that their retreat, evaluated only on satellite images and not on field studies, was being sensationalised by a few. Out of some 9500 glaciers cradling in the mighty Himalaya, 50 important ones, including the Gangotri that feeds the Ganga, are being monitored regularly by the GSI and according to Raina it will take several hundred years for all these glaciers to melt and disappear in toto.  While the IPCC pooh-poohed Raina’s observations, the environment minister found a lot of sense in them from the start.

Where the IPCC had erred was in not realising that the glaciers are geological features and so the geological aspects need to be given their proper place in their programmes. Glaciers originate in snowfields through transformation of the light, fallen snow into a denser, more compact ice by the expulsion of the trapped air. 

They can be a few hundred metres in thickness and are nourished by orographic snowfall that is related to the high altitude.  Wastage of glaciers by melting is a normal process and the melt-water can flow on the sides, on top, through their mass or at the terminal ends.  Without any melting our perennial rivers like the Ganga will not be fed.

The GSI, the oldest government organisation, has a separate Glaciology division to study the glaciers in all their aspects. 

Though the IPCC has a few working groups and task forces, there is nothing to suggest that geologists find a place in any of them. 

The much-decorated RK Pachauri, its chairman, is a reputed industrial engineer and an economist. The IPCC should have first talked to the glacial geologists of the GSI and taken their findings before making global pronouncements. 

That it did not do so and went ahead with the Copenhagen summit involving some 190 nations armed with only suspect 10-year-old data was a grave mistake and amounts to taking the world for a ride.   

The only way for the IPCC to redeem itself is to start afresh and rope in experienced geologists into its working groups.  In fact with its United Nations funding, it should also be possible for it to help the GSI to recruit young geologists and put them on detailed studies of the Himalayan glaciers.  

At present young geologists are not motivated to take up these studies. So much so that only a small number of the glaciers are being studied for their behaviour.

The IPCC should also avoid using unreliable data for its projections because it has a mandate to advise the whole world. It is also necessary to tell the world ‘how seriously we need to take global warming’.

Finally, the IPCC should exercise restraint and care while arriving at acceptable predictions about likely sealevel rise and other consequences of the supposed warming.

The writer is a former professor of Geology at IIT, Bombay

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