Thursday, March 31, 2005

Recently, a World Wildlife Fund press release was picked up by Reuters. “Himalayan glaciers are among the fastest-retreating glaciers globally due to the effects of global warming,” the advocacy group announced.

WWF timed its press release for a two-day Energy and Environmental Ministerial conference in London, where the United States was (predictably) criticized 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. “The (glaciers, polar bears, butterflies) of (anywhere) are in dramatic decline because of global warming. Unless the (U.S., U.S., U.S.) signs on to the Kyoto Protocol, their continued decline is assured.”

Here’s another broken record. “It appears that the (U.N., World Wildlife Fund, New York Times) forgot to check the temperature histories where the (ice, polar bears, butterflies) are in decline, and the (U.S., U.S., U.S.) isn’t going along with counterfactual nonsense produced by agenda-driven environmentalists.”

We offer this evidence. WWF is especially interested in the Gangotri glacier, in the Indian Himalayas. The glacier is retreating an average 75 feet yearly.

Glaciers are in steady state when the annual snowfall and summer melting rate are roughly in balance. Actually, this is rare. When glaciers melt too much in the summer, they retreat. And if it snows more in the winter than normal, 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 reliable 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. The IPCC has June-August temperatures for the Gangotri region back 1875. The net decline in temperature over the last 130 years is striking. In fact, at 1.2 degrees (F), it is one of the largest summer coolings on Earth. That’s right: cooling. In contrast, the temperature for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole increased 0.8 degrees during the same period.

Still, no one doubts the Gangotri glacier is receding. It was expanded far beyond where it is today when the cooling was first noted more than a century ago. Temperatures reached their low in 1990 and have popped up a bit, to the long-term average for the last 130 years. Perhaps this has something to do with Gangotri’s recent more rapid retreat.

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

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

Most scientists think the mid-19th century marks the end of a multicentury period known as the “Little Ice Age,” though a small but vocal core of skeptics 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, producing a graph that indeed resembles a hockey stick. This view has been pretty much marginalized in a number of papers in scientific literature over the last year.

Indeed, glaciers went into retreat at the end of this cold period. Gangotri is even more tenuous, receding even as local temperatures continued declining.

Incidentally, the Northern Hemisphere’s largest ice mass — the Greenland icecap — is in retreat in the southern part of the island, where temperatures also show a substantial net cooling for the last 75 years.

All this leads to an obvious conclusion. Southern Greenland, Glacier National Park and the Himalayan glaciers are on their 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.

Patrick J. Michaels is Cato Institute fellow for senior environmental studies and author of “Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.”

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