March 17, 2005

The Great Himalayan Snow Job

Filed under: Glaciers/Sea Ice

On March 14, Reuters shipped a story about rapid recession of the Himalayan glaciers—the largest nonpolar ice mass in the world. They quoted from a World Wildlife Fund press release stating “Himalayan glaciers are among the fastest retreating glaciers globally due to the effects of global warming.

WWF timed its press release before a two-day “Energy and Environmental Ministerial Conference” in London. At this meeting the United States was (predictably) blasted because it won’t commit economic suicide by adopting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

This is one of those repeating news stories, like “Strife in Haiti” or “Irish Unrest.” It goes like this. To wit: “The (glaciers, polar bears, butterflies) of (anywhere) are in dramatic decline because of global warming. Unless the (US, US, US) signs on to the Kyoto Protocol, their continued decline is assured.”

Well, here at World Climate Report we have our own repeating news story. To wit: “It appears that the (UN, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club) forgot to check the temperature histories where the (glaciers, polar bears, butterflies) are in decline, and the (US, US, US) isn’t going along with counterfactual nonsense produced by agenda-driven environmentalists.”

We offer this evidence. WWF was especially interested in the Gangotri glacier, which they said is retreating at an average rate of 23 meters per year.

Glaciers are in steady-state when the annual snowfall and the summer melting rate are roughly in balance. This is actually a rare case. When they melt too much in the summer, they retreat, and if it snows more in the winter than it used to, they advance.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes historical temperature records around the planet. They are averages for 5 X 5 degree latitude/longitude rectangles. They used these somewhat large areas so that, in general, many local records are averaged up to form a regional picture. The Gangotri Glacier, which feeds the Ganges River, is in the 30-35N, 75-80E box.

High altitude glaciers melt during the summer. Figure 1 shows the IPCC June-August temperatures back to the beginning of the record in 1875. The net decline in temperature over the last 130 years is striking. In fact, it is one of the largest summer coolings of any grid box in the entire world that is so close to the equator.

Temperature History

Figure 1. Summer (June, July, August) temperature history from the IPCC gridcell containing the Gangotri glacier.

No one doubts that the Gangotri glacier is receding. It was far expanded beyond where it was today when the cooling record starts over a century ago.

Interestingly, temperatures reached their nadir in 1990 and have popped up to their long-term average since then. Perhaps this has something to do with Gangotri’s recent more rapid retreat.

But the fact that it has been in such a decline as overall century-scale temperatures have cooled tells us a lot about the long-term fate of glaciers away from polar regions: they are relics of the ice age, destined to melt.

Another place with the same ice history is our own Glacier National Park in Montana. 150 years ago, near the start of the Gangotri temperature record, there were 147 glaciers in the park. Today there are only 37. What happened to summer temperatures? Unlike the case of Gangotri, they didn’t cool. They merely have remained fairly constant, with no statistically significant warming since records began in 1895.

Most scientists think that the mid-19th century marks the end of a multi-century period a the “Little Ice Age,” although there is a small but vocal core of skeptics who maintain a view known as the “Hockey Stick” history—one in which temperatures do not change for nearly a millennium and then shoot up in the last 100 years (a plot that indeed looks like a hockey stick). This view has been seriously challenged in a number of papers in the scientific literature over the last year.

Indeed, Glacier’s glaciers went into retreat at the end of this cold period. Gangotri still receded even though temperatures there bucked the Little-Ice-Age model and continued to decline.

Incidentally, the Northern Hemisphere’s largest ice mass—the Greenland icecap—is in retreat in the southern part of the island (continent?), where temperatures are cooling.

All of this leads to an obvious conclusion. Southern Greenland, Glacier National Park and the Himalayan glaciers are on there way out, with little or no nudging needed from people. They’re relics of the big ice age that ended 11,000 years ago. It’s too bad, though, that in the fight to hype global warming, the truth is also rapidly becoming another relic.

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