By Richard Harris
One of the most shocking revelations from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2007 was that the glaciers in the Himalayas could melt away entirely by 2035. That would mean, in a mere 25 years, large parts of Asia would lose the rivers that sustain the farms and lives of half a billion people.
The factoid was buried in one of the voluminous reports from the IPCC, which won a Nobel Peace Prize for its work. The statistic never made it to the all-important summary for policymakers. But even so, it has been creeping out into polite society.
In fact, NPR has repeated it on several occasions. For example, a year ago we covered a congressional hearing at which Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) discussed it with former Vice President Al Gore. The two talked about the shocking implications of losing the headwaters of the Irrawaddy, the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Yellow rivers.
OK. Deep breath. After a government minister in India expressed his skepticism about the assertion recently, the head of the IPCC went and looked it up. Oops. It's wrong.
The IPCC has issued a statement saying that the organization's fact-checking system broke down in this instance.
How did this happen? A letter being published online later today in Science Magazine says the IPCC picked up the date from a report by the World Wildlife Fund, which has since corrected its error. WWF picked up the date from a quote in the popular science magazine, New Scientist. But the final clue to the mystery may lie in an obscure study that discussed the global fate of glaciers in the year 2350. Flip around a few of those digits and...
That's not quite the end of the story, though. The IPCC stands by its overarching message, which is that the world's glaciers are rapidly melting and bad things will happen to people if that continues unabated. But the demise of the Himalayan glaciers is, thankfully, not just a few decades away.