Guest post by Tom Fuller
How glaciers have responded to the warming of the past 130 years is a complicated story, although many millions of words have been written to try and explain it.
How glaciers have been used to promote fears of a disastrous future is a much simpler story, but it really only gets told in skeptic weblogs. The story competes with a much easier tale, one that is told by the media strategists for environmental organisations and is repeated by politicians and others seeking temporary fame or permanent fortune through shaping our future to meet the challenges of climate change.
As a non-scientist, what I take from the many articles and papers I have read can be summarized as follows: Glaciers advance and retreat in response to a variety of forces, some mechanical, some climatic, some of each regular, some of each unusual. This has been going on as long as there has been ice. I realize that this is so vague as to be useless and vapid, but I want to start from a non-controversial position. It will probably start to get controversial with the next sentence, and will probably not stop after that.
It is my best understanding based on what I have read (and please feel free to correct errors or hints of bias), that at this point in time more glaciers are retreating than are growing, and probably by a significant percentage. However, some of those that are retreating actually began retreating before global warming started. So, many glaciers are retreating, many should be attributed to global warming, but there are many exceptions–it is by no means a universal phenomenon.
There has never been anything like a census, even using satellite photography over the past 30 years, although photographs of 100,000 glaciers are available at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. (I’d love to be proven wrong on that point, as continuous satellite coverage would be really useful.) The Assessment of The Status of The Development of The Standards For the Terrestrial Essential Climate Variables, published in 2009, references the inventory of the 100,000 glaciers, but draws no conclusions on overall status.
It is also my best understanding that those pushing the story of catastrophic global warming have used and misused glacier melt to advance their quest for political agreement to their preferred solutions. They started with the glacier at Kilmanjaro, prominently featured in Al Gore’s move An Inconvenient Truth. However, it turned out that Kilmanjaro’s glacier had been receding long before human contributions to global warming, and it sort of receded to the background.
But glaciers on a mountain make a pretty picture, and Kilmanjaro was replaced by Himalayan glaciers, which are just as pretty, and didn’t seem so controversial. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in their 4th Assessment Report wrote, “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world.
(see Table 10.9)
And, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).”
This finding was meat to a hungry press corps, and was featured prominently in print, on television and on the internet. But it was wrong, as most readers here already know. Worse, the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, had been informed it was wrong years before.
But again, as with polar bears, Antarctic ice and pictures of flooded cities, the image and the fear it produced was too important to let go. I’m not speaking of the scientists, although the warmist weblogs keep accusing me of doing so. I’m speaking of slick media strategists working hard to keep an issue alive, donations coming in, lobbyists full of talking points and committee votes on tough issues like Cap and Trade. So although the IPCC finally admitted their report was in error, it still gets spun as a typographical error that doesn’t change the inevitability of glacial disappearance.
The warming we have experienced has caused many glaciers to lose mass–in a few cases, glaciers have disappeared entirely, or are likely to do so soon. But the issue is not as simple as the media have been spoon-fed to believe, at least not according to the articles I have read.
But complexity gets in the way of a scare story, and so the narrative must be simplified–and exaggerated.
As has been the case in each instance of symbols being hijacked for political purposes, a sober and compelling story could have been told. It would have had many qualifications, and would have probably ended with a call for further research and keeping a close eye on the situation. I honestly believe such a story would have resulted in more and more effective action than the sledgehammer horror story approach the activists took.
Thomas Fuller http://www.redbubble.com/people/hfuller