Jan 25, 2010

NASA's Mistaken Glacier Info

We can trust NASA, right? It puts people on the moon, sends missions to Mars, has a stellar scientific reputation, etcetera, etcetera.

The second sentence is true, but answering the question that precedes it is complicated. Whatever else might be said about NASA, in the context of the global warming debate one fact predominates: it has, inadvertently or otherwise, provided a prestigious platform to its employee, Dr. James Hansen.

(Hansen is an activist climate scientist whom many regard as the person most responsible for popularizing the idea of catastrophic global warming. See my blog post here and the second-last paragraph of this one for a taste of his controversial views and behaviour. Joanne Nova has a post about an eco-terrorist book he has endorsed. Some feel Hansen uses his association with NASA to lend his opinions an aura of unwarranted scientific certainty - thus tarnishing the reputation of his employer in the process. See here and here.)

Now NASA finds itself with egg on its face regarding the erroneous United Nations report that claimed Himalayan glaciers were at risk of disappearing by 2035. (Such an event would be significant because this could impact water supplies upon which billions of people depend.)

It turns out, NASA - the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - has a web page on which it declares that the "evidence for abrupt climate change is compelling." However, rather than making an argument based on its own, direct expertise, NASA merely repeats claims contained in the UN's Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) Nobel-prize-winning report.

Up until January 19th of this year, five of the six footnotes on the NASA web page referred to various parts of that report. On January 20, however, the IPCC repudiated the 2035 estimate after media attention revealed that most glacier experts consider it absurd.

As one would hope and expect, NASA has since taken steps to correct what it tells the public regarding this matter. Rather than repeating the mistaken idea that Himalayan glaciers may "disappear altogether" within a few decades it now says: "Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa." (This neglects to mention that glaciers have been expanding and retreating for much of the planet's history, but never mind.)

There's an interesting twist, though. As the image at the top of this post reveals (click HERE for an enlargement), when NASA was passing along the earlier info to the public it shaved five years from what was already an unrealistic number.

The IPCC report used the year 2035. NASA told the little kids who visit its website that this would happen even sooner - in 2030.

Was this a careless typo - or an example of layering hype over hype? Who knows. The important point is that we're all fallible. Many of the things we believe - and pass along to others - may, in fact, be supported by meagre evidence, indeed.

My original title for this blog post was: "NASA Said It, So it Must Be True." In the grownup world, that's actually not the case.


>> James Hansen drags NASA into his personal politics
>> Scientific organizations - should we trust them?
>> Climate psychics: 10-year-old snow prediction fails miserably
>> The cult of the expert