NASA Satellite Debunks Melting Glacier Myth

One of the claims put forth by climate change alarmists is that Earth's glaciers are rapidly melting. This supposedly causes all sorts of problems, from rising sea levels to failing water supplies. A recent report in the journal Nature uses NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite to measure the loss of glacial ice around the globe. Analysis of the satellite data on Earth's changing gravity field delivers some unexpected results and the results have surprising implications for both the global contribution of glaciers to sea level and the changes occurring in the mountain regions of Asia.

The story of melting glaciers has been told ad nauseam by climate catastrophists and the scientifically gullible news media for years. This blog has reported on the purported “rapid melting” of the Himalayan glaciers several times before (see “Himalayan Glaciers Not Melting” and “Himalayan Glacier Disappearance Overstated”). It is true that glaciers melt, they are the primary source of water in a number of regions around the world.

As I have often stated, this is an interglacial period, ice is supposed to melt. Otherwise there would still be a mile of ice on top of New York City. But despite evidence to the contrary, warmists continue to claim that glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to an accompanying News & Views article appearing in the same issue by Jonathan Bamber, from the Bristol Glaciology Centre:

Glaciers and ice caps are pivotal features of both water resources and tourism. They are also a significant contributor to sea-level rise. About 1.4 billion people are dependent on the rivers that flow from the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas1. Yet significant controversy and uncertainty surround the recent past and future behaviour of glaciers in this region. This is not so surprising when one considers the problem in hand. There are more than 160,000 glaciers and ice caps worldwide. Fewer than 120 (0.075%) have had their mass balance (the sum of the annual mass gains and losses of the glacier or ice cap) directly measured, and for only 37 of these are there records extending beyond 30 years. Extrapolating this tiny sample of observations to all glaciers and ice caps is a challenging task that inevitably leads to large uncertainties.

It is certainly no exaggeration that previous estimates of glacial melting have been fraught with error, sparking contentious debate among glaciologists. “Discussion of the demise of the Himalayan glaciers has been mired in controversy, partly because of basic errors, but also because of the dearth of reliable data on past trends,” Bamber explains. Indeed, estimates for the Himalayan glaciers, based on a few easy to access sites, was roundly criticized by experts world wide. Now comes a “surprising” new set of estimates, based on satellite measurements of glacier ice mass.

Most previous global mass balance estimates for Glaciers and ice caps (GICs) rely on extrapolation of sparse mass balance measurements, which represent only a small fraction of the GIC area. Based on a global, simultaneous inversion of monthly GRACE-derived satellite gravity fields, Thomas Jacob et al, calculated the mass change over all ice-covered regions greater in area than 100 km2. In “Recent contributions of glaciers and ice caps to sea level rise,” the authors describe their work:

Here we present a GRACE solution that details individual mass balance results for every region of Earth with large ice-covered areas. The main focus of this paper is on GICs, excluding Antarctic and Greenland PGICs. For completeness, however, we also include results for the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets with their PGICs. GRACE does not have the resolution to separate the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets from their PGICs. All results are computed for the same 8-yr time period (2003–2010).

Here the term PGICs means peripheral GICs—in other words, surrounding non-glacial ice such as floating sea ice. To determine losses of individual GIC regions, they covered each region with one or more ‘mascons’ (small, arbitrarily defined regions of Earth). The mass of each mascon was then estimated using the GRACE data. They were particlulary interested in measuring the glaciers of the Himalaya, refered to here as High Mountain Asia (HMA). The mascons are shown in the figure below.

Mascons for the ice-covered regions used in the study.

“Our results for HMA disagree significantly with previous studies,” the article plainly states. Even though previous GRACE based studies showed significant mass loss, the authors state that those measurements were in error—the outcome of “leakage” of readings from surrounding plains that was included by the Gaussian smoothing functions used. The excessive readings from the plains have been attributed to groundwater movement, not ice loss. They also dismiss any contribution from broad-scale tectonic uplift. In short, they found minimal ice loss from the glaciers of the Himalaya.

According to the report: “The GIC rate for 2003–2010 is about 30 per cent smaller than the previous mass balance estimate that most closely matches our study period. The high mountains of Asia, in particular, show a mass loss of only 4 ± 20 Gt yr−1 for 2003–2010, compared with 47–55 Gt yr−1 in previously published estimates.” Bamber summarizes the article's findings this way:

First, the contribution of GICs (excluding the Antarctica and Greenland peripheral GICs) to sea-level rise was less than half the value of the most recent, comprehensive estimate obtained from extrapolation of in situ measurements for 2001–05 (0.41 ± 0.08 compared with 1.1 mm yr−1). Second, losses for the High Mountain Asia region — comprising the Himalayas, Karakoram, Tianshan, Pamirs and Tibet — were insignificant. Here, the mass-loss rate was just 4 ± 20 gigatonnes per year (corresponding to 0.01 mm yr−1 of sea-level rise), compared with previous estimates that were well over ten times larger. By a careful analysis, the authors discounted a possible tectonic origin for the huge discrepancy, and it seems that this region is more stable than previously believed.

The facts are in and the latest measurements clearly state that the Himalayan Glaciers are not melting at an abnormal rate. In fact, another new study, this time in Nature Geoscience, reports that annual groundwater fluxes for Nepal are larger in volume than the contribution from ice- and snowmelt. In “Impact of transient groundwater storage on the discharge of Himalayan rivers,” Christoff Andermann et al. report that a significant portion—perhaps as high as 50 percent—of the water discharged from the high mountains of Asia does not come from melting glaciers.

Runoff from the Himalaya is not all from glacier meltwater.

Scientists have done what they are supposed to do: conduct new experiments, make new measurements and devise better answers. Using the latest technology to broaden their observations new data shows the old estimates of sea-level rise due to glacial melting are off by 50%. The bungled estimates for melting in the Himalaya are exposed as total fabrications. Science works, but there is no easy defense against lazy or biased scientists who produce “facts” that support a political agenda. That is why it is best to remain skeptical of claims of impending disaster backed by weak minded consensus arguments.

Hopefully this new evidence will put and end to the exaggerated claims of glacial melting from those who want to prove that the world around us is afflicted by the evil works of man. The alarmists' previous estimates were “well over ten times larger” for some areas according to these experts. It would appear that, when it comes to climate science, if you are going to tell a lie, you should tell a big lie. That ensures you make the evening news. Do not, however, look to the news media for a correction—disasters sell, good news does not.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

Climate Alarmists!

Climate alarms have become a geo-political tool to tune the economic pace and sanctions. Funds are being pushed for propaganda than real research! Being a geologist, I view variation in climate is more natural than 'human' induced. With N dominant atmosphere, there is less to worry about CO2 or CFCs creating holes here and there.

biju longhinos

Expert Blasts IPCC Report On NPR

This week, on America's National Public Radio (indisputably a nest of climate change true believers), Jeffrey Kargel, from the University of Arizona, blasted the UN IPCC report regarding the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Here is part of the NPR report:

Just a few years ago, it seemed that the Himalayas were on the brink of disaster. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made alarming claims about the fate of all that ice. You can almost see Jeffrey Kargel at the University of Arizona cringe as he describes it.

"One page had the most egregious errors you could imagine, just one after another, including the claim that the glaciers would disappear by 2035," he says.

But the claim was dead wrong. The error put a lot of egg on the face of the IPCC. But it also sent glacier scientists scrambling. They knew very little about the state and the fate of those glaciers, even the basics.

For example, it is true that a billion people live downstream from those glaciers. But, Kargel says, don't leap to conclusions based on that statistic alone. "That sort of statement can be exaggerated to imply that somehow if the glaciers disappear, the taps are going to run dry for a billion people. And that's just patently not the case."

Visit the NPR site for a transcript of the report.

Some Asian glaciers 'putting on mass'

Some glaciers on Asia's Karakoram mountains are defying the global trend and getting thicker, say researchers.

A French team used satellite data to show that glaciers in part of the Karakoram range, to the west of the Himalayan region, are putting on mass.

The reason is unclear, as glaciers in other parts of the Himalayas are losing mass - which also is the global trend.


Thanks for the link, Doug. I

Thanks for the link, Doug. I absolutely loved the part about the Himalayas, where they say:

Here, the mass-loss rate was just 4 ± 20 gigatonnes per year (corresponding to 0.01 mm yr−1 of sea-level rise), compared with previous estimates that were well over ten times larger.

Four plus or minus twenty? Is that error of ± 20 one standard deviation or two? Usually, these kinds of studies use 1 SD to avoid pointing out how truly wide the error limits are.

Seriously, it's an interesting article, but anyone who says that a result of 4 ± 20 means something compared to a loss ten times larger (presumably 40 ± 20) is not engaged in science ... the two results are statistically indistinguishable.


Mass loss variation

From the original report: “The high mountains of Asia, in particular, show a mass loss of only 4 ± 20 Gt yr-1 for 2003–2010, compared with 47–55 Gt yr-1 in previously published estimates.” The new estimate of mass loss ranges from -16 (ie a gain of 16 Gt) to 24 Gt per year. I do not find that degree of variability inconsistent with the process being measured. Remember, they are trying to measure the loss from a much bigger mass of ice. Including the Karakoram as well as the Himalaya proper, there are about 21,000 individual glaciers in HMA. Estimating total mass by volume-area scaling depends on which set of scaling parameters you choose.

I found five different, equally plausible estimates giving total masses between 4,000 and 8,000 Gt. The IPCC estimated 12,000 Gt back in 2007, though that number was not really justified with backing data. So just choosing the median of the more reliable total mass estimates implies that they are measuring 6,000 Gt with a spread of ± 20 Gt. I don't find that unreasonable at all. Moreover, note that the HMA estimate is almost centered on zero—that is the real importance of the result. Even at the upper end of the estimated range, the new value is half of the previous one. The previous loss estimate was 51± 4 Gt per year.

Melting Glacier Myth

"It is true that glaciers melt, they are the primary source of water in a number of regions around the world."

I certainly hope not, for the sake of the people in those regions. I presume most of that melt is from yearly snowfall. Anyone who relies on glacier melt for water is living in a fool's paradise and will quickly come to ruin. With growing glaciers you get less runoff than prior winter snowfall, with shrinking glaciers you get more runoff than prior winter snowfall. Over the long term runoff melt must equal snowfall melt, else you get a big population crash when the ice stops melting.

Good point, and something the

Good point, and something the author of this artice was not aware of. How many other mistakes are there in this article? Perhaps none, perhaps several. We each need to do a lot of our own research and not simply believe what sounds good to us, as we are then easily led into error.

Glacial melt water

Unfortunately for many people that statement is correct. In fact, a many as 30 million people depend of the melt water from glaciers in the Andes alone. That is why the second article quoted above is noteworthy--it claims less of the run-off from the Himalayas is from glacial melting than previously thought. For more information you can visit Wikipedia here or an interesting NoTricksZone blog post on the subject here.

Data Crit

It seems to me Doug, that your conclusion suffers from the same shortcomings that you claim exist in the "warmists:" position.
You mentioned a database that extends only 30 years for glacial mass, yet from the Bamber report synopsis:

"Using GRACE data, Jacob et al. assess regional mass loss between 2003 and 2010, and conclude that mass loss from ice-covered land areas contributed almost 1.5 mm per year to the sea-level rise."

- Only 7 years of data.

But what about 30 years of data, is it useful? Consider that the effect of human consumption of carbon-based fuels has been most dramatic during only the last 40 years, ie, since the population went from 3 billion, more than doubling to 7B, I'd say the glacial mass data spanning 30 years is enough. We don't really care what happened during the previous 10,000 years since human population was minimal compared to today. It is this sudden increase during the most recent half century that concerns us.

The principle of the additivity of small numbers should tell us that if you keep adding even small producers of greenhouse gases, at some point the effect wil be noticeable and in this case potentially disastrous. GRACE notwithstanding, human population is excessive and needs remedying.

30 vs 10,000 years

The point of this article is to debunk those who claim that glacial melting is faster today than ever before and is accelerating at an ever increasing rate. The question that must be asked is: are estimates based on 30 years of incomplete and unrepresentative data better than estimates based on 7 years of arguably more comprehensive and more trustworthy data? The new data clearly indicate that the previous estimates were wrong and that current rates of melting, at least for the Himalaya, are 50% of the old estimates.

Beyond that, it is very important to consider what has happened to glacial ice mass over the past 10,000 years. Indications are that is has waxed and waned, often at rates faster than what is observed today. If you want to talk about meaningful time spans you are just going to have to wait about another 1,500 years to account for all the major short and medium term climatic cycles.

Sundry items

I was referred here from the Website 'Australian Climate Madness'.
The content of your site appeals to me. This is my first visit, but I don't expect it to be my last. Your title 'the resilient earth' encapsulates one of the major foundations of my CAGW skepticism.
However, as a fellow skeptic, permit me to offer some quibbles.
First, the design of your blog. The style choice of white writing on black background is hard to read. The same awful choice can be found on the blogs of many religious nutters. Compare and contrast it with the choice of respected climate blogs. You choose which ones. I freely admit I have no design skills at all, but even to me this particular choice is so bad it warrents comment.
Secondly, your description of 'mascon'(s). My understanding is that 'mascon' is a portmanteau word from 'mass concentration', and refers to the concentrations of mass disclosed by gravity satellites. Thus regions containing mascons can be mapped, but mascons are most certainly not the regions themselves.
Finally, I encourage you to reconsider your allegation that earlier estimates are 'fabrications'. People who can't follow the science can still determine who has the facts and who has to resort to name-calling. We have the higher ground, lets keep it.

Join the site

The color scheme of the main site matches the colors found in the cover of The Resilient Earth, sorry that you do not find it pleasing. If you register as a user you can select an alternate theme that is dark on white. As for my use of "fabrication,' a fabrication is a deliberately false or improbable account. No scientist worth the title would base overall predictions based on such scant data as previously available. I, therefore, stand by my characterization of those reports. If you feel more chartable you can call them incompetent rather than deceitful.


here's how the Christian Science Monitor reports this:

"The melt-off from the world's ice sheets, ice caps and glaciers over eight years of the past decade would have been enough to cover the United States in about 18 inches (46 centimeters) of water, according to new research based on the most-comprehensive analysis of satellite data yet."

Melting glaciers

Regarding this "The melt-off from the world's ice sheets, ice caps and glaciers over eight years of the past decade would have been enough to cover the United States in about 18 inches (46 centimeters) of water, according to new research based on the most-comprehensive analysis of satellite data yet."

That is the most unscientific form or reporting anything and it is meant to alarm the innocent who do not know their a** from a hole in the ground....the bulk of mankind.

but read on where the article in CS Monitor says:"There are more than 160,000 glaciers and ice caps worldwide, but annual changes in mass have been directly measured for only 120 of them, and in most cases only within the last 30 years, according to Bamber."

We have seen how East Anglia "extrapolated" data and they have yet to be "disenfranchised" from the AGW movement, in fact they still lead... reason to be SKEPTIC.

And of course it is necessary to take into account long term fluctuations because they can tell us if the Carbon Emission correlation may be CASUAL instead of the cause.. I have not yet seen an explanation to the CO2- Greenhouse effect as CO2 is definitely heavier than air, it settles down and is dissolved in land and sea and fertilizes them. By what mechanism does this heavy molecule stay up there? Can somebody address this point if they know facts---no consensus science please.

Back on form

It is good to see you back in top form, Dr. Hoffman. Excelent article, keep them comming!