Climate Data Confusion

December 8, 2011 0 Comments

A couple weeks ago I penned an article entitled “Of AGW Persuasion” where I lent some advice for advancing the debate over anthropogenic global warming, or what has at times been called “global warming”, “climate disruption”, and “climate change”. The popular name of this theorized future disaster has changed through the years.

I was curious as to the changing terminology as it started to develop after it was clear that the global land surface temperature record had seemed to level off after 1998. As the years went by and the global temperature remained below the modern record set during 1998, it began to look like “global warming” had paused. Now almost no major media outlets or journals use the term “global warming”, preferring instead to use “climate change”. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to use “climate change” and it might be a better all-encompassing title, but the change was curious.

I was reminded of this after reading a rebuttal to the “global warming has stopped” theme that is promoted by people who hold alternative views of the theory (AGW). Many people have noticed that temperatures have flat-lined or even gone down slightly (on average) since 1998….or have they? In the rebuttal it is stated that both 2009 and 2010 were warmer than 1998 and are records in the modern day. Alternatively, just a few short months ago, GISS claimed 2005 and 2010 were the warmest on record. Complicating the matter is the fact that you can easily find graphs from reputable sources that DO show 1998 to be warmer (than 2005 at least).  Here is one for example showing 2005 to be well below the temperature of 1998.

Latest GISS tabulation

I receive the annual “state of the climate” issue from the AMS and can confirm that in the short time period from 1998 through 2008, using the data tabulation and aggregation methods of the time, there was a statistically valid leveling off of surface land temperatures or even a small decline. To ignore it, or claim it isn’t in the record, is deceptive. As I mentioned in “Of Climate Persuasion“, the facts can speak for themselves and if mother nature throws a wrench into your theory (for a short period at least), it isn’t the end of the world and should be acknowledged.

So what is the problem here? Are top climatologists manipulating the data? Are there errors in the tabulation? In most cases, the devil is in the details. Different universities and researchers use different methods and different data sets to calculate the average global temperature. Using only surface thermometers, you will get a different result than if you used surface and ocean temperatures. The result will differ again if you include satellite measurements of the atmosphere. The numbers will differ again depending on how many data points/locations are used. The number of different methods of tabulation is immense. The hope is that the methods will converge on the best one (or few), based on the science, and openness to public scrutiny. This seems to be happening.

Until that point, when different research units make claims as the which year was the warmest in the modern record they should clearly state which data and statistical methods were used. Even better would be to add a note as to why their conclusion is different from others. This goes for scientific journals (which is usually the case) and for major media outlets who disseminate a lot of this information. After the ‘climate-gate” emails, it should be obvious that more attention needs to be paid to this issue.


– In other climate related news, a recent research effort came to the conclusion that many animal species will not be able to adapt to the pace of climate change expected in the near future. This was based on data gathered from adaptation during the last few hundred thousand years (including the ice ages). I would tend to think that if animals were able to adapt through the ice ages, that they would be able to do it again, after all, Wisconsin was under a mile sheet thick of ice at one point and now there is no permanent ice to be found. The argument is that current rate of change is much faster than in the past (even through the ice ages). This makes me wonder if animals only adapted as fast as they needed to before and after the past ice ages. If the climate had changed faster, I wonder if the animals (and plants) would have also shown a record of faster adaptation.

Walnut Tree

Walnut trees are claimed to be one of the plants not able to adapt to theorized future changes, because they cannot handle extended periods of dry weather. It is a good thing then that a lot of our food comes from managed cropland with irrigation systems. The central valley of California is certainly too hot and dry for most of the year to grow a wide variety of food, but thanks to human ingenuity, it is the most productive agricultural region of the world.

Trees in the eastern U.S. are not adapting at all, according to a recent study. Maybe it is because the climate hasn’t changed enough yet. There have been a few cooler than normal years in the eastern U.S. interspersed with the warmer years.

– As should be expected, some species are moving due to temperature changes.

– James Hansen made the news again claiming there will be a climate related disaster if the world warms up 2 degrees by 2100.

– I mentioned in the blog a few years ago that it was politically smart for Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign a climate bill to reduce California’s carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. First of all, he would not be in office anymore. Second of all, Peak Oil and technological progress should combine to make this goal easier than people expect. Now the state is starting to lay out plans as to how to achieve that goal.

Have a nice Thursday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.

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