Can Climate Forecasts Still Be Trusted?

The Siachen Glacier is home to the world's highest crisis region. Here, at 6,000 meters (19,680 feet) above sea level, Indian and Pakistani soldiers face off, ensconced in heavily armed positions.

The ongoing border dispute between the two nuclear powers has already claimed the lives of 4,000 men -- most of them having died of exposure to the cold.

Now the Himalayan glacier is also at the center of a scientific dispute. In its current report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the glacier, which is 71 kilometers (44 miles) long, could disappear by 2035. It also predicts that the other 45,000 glaciers in the world's highest mountain range will be virtually gone by then, with drastic consequences for billions of people in Asia, whose life depends on water that originates in the Himalayas. The IPCC report led environmental activists to sound the alarm about a drama that could be unfolding at the "world's third pole."

"This prognosis is, of course, complete nonsense," says John Shroder, a geologist and expert on glaciers at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. The results of his research tell a completely different story.

For the past three decades, the US glaciologist has been traversing the majestic mountains of the Himalayan region, particularly the Karakorum Range, with his measuring instruments. The discoveries he has made along the way are not consistent with the assessment long held by the IPCC. "While many glaciers are shrinking, others are stable and some are even growing," says Shroder.

Untenable Claim

The gaffe over the Himalayan glaciers has triggered an outcry in the world of climatology. Some are already using the word "Glaciergate" in reference to the scandal over a scientifically untenable claim in the fourth IPCC assessment report, which the UN climate body publishes every five years. The fourth assessment report was originally published in 2007. Last week, the IPCC withdrew the erroneous claim and apologized for the error.

German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is also upset about the incident. "The error in the IPCC report is serious and should not have happened," Röttgen told SPIEGEL. "Scientific accuracy is a vital condition to support the credibility of the political conclusions we draw as a result." Although the minister still has confidence in the overall validity of the IPCC report, he wants to see "a thorough investigation into how the error originated and was communicated."

But why wasn't this clearly nonsensical claim noticed long ago by at least one of the 3,000 scientists who contributed to the IPCC report? "What's really amazing is that such a blunder remained uncorrected for so long," says Shroder.

To err is human, say IPCC officials like Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "We shouldn't question the credibility of an almost 3,000-page report because of one error."

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