Bad data, bad theory? Temp reports might not be accurate

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A new study questions the way the United States records temperature – and the need to spend tens of millions of dollars to combat climate change based on that record.

Published by The Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank, the report is a comprehensive review of the quality of data from the National Weather Service’s network of stations.

Meteorologist Anthony Watts and a team of volunteers visually inspected and photographed more than 850 of the 1,221 climate-monitoring stations overseen by the NWS.

“We found stations located next to the exhaust fans of air conditioning units, surrounded by asphalt parking lots and roads, on blistering-hot rooftops and near sidewalks and buildings that absorb and radiate heat,” he said. “We found 68 stations located at wastewater treatment plants, where the process of waste digestion causes temperatures to be higher than in surrounding areas.”

The study asserts that nearly nine of 10 of the monitoring stations are “unreliable.”

“In fact, we found that 89 percent of the stations fail to meet the National Weather Service’s own siting requirements,” he said.

The conclusion, Watts said, is obvious. Temperature records aren’t accurate, so reports about global warming also are inaccurate.

Not so fast, say officials at the National Weather Service. The variance of a few degrees doesn’t matter when compiling climate data over centuries. What matters, they say, is consistency.

“We’ve had some stations in place for 100 years,” said Kim Runk, chief of services for the central region – which includes Colorado. “And the important thing is to record temperature changes over time – consistency is what we’re looking for.”

And climatologists consider more than the information that comes from monitoring stations.

“We look at satellite records, we look at buoys that measure ocean surface temperature,” Runk said. “There are a lot of things that go into climate modeling that aren’t covered here.”

Claiming that the NWS monitoring stations are unreliable is, he said, “irresponsible and over-simplified.”

Climatologists have long been aware of problems related to the monitoring stations maintained by the NWS, said Colorado State University climatologist Nolan Doesken. He points to changes in equipment to record temperature, changes in the environment, and changes in location for the stations.

“We’ve been fighting over this for decades,” he said. “Until relatively recently, we were just trying to figure out what the climate was – we weren’t looking at trends. It wasn’t until the middle part of the 20th century that we had enough data to look at trends.”

But that data isn’t precise, he acknowledges.

“In Colorado Springs, they’ve all been moved,” Doesken said. “We have a pretty good record going back 50 years, but we can’t go back further than that. And, as you know, the weather can be quite different in parts of the city – we just don’t have good data.”

Even at the CSU site – in the same location for 120 years – there are problems, he said.

“We record temperature the same way they did 120 years ago, we haven’t moved the site, but the campus has changed – trees have grown, there are buildings, a parking lot,” he said. “We’ve recorded a large warming trend that is due, in part, to those changes.”

The lack of solid data caused him to be “on the fence” as far as the climate change debate – but now, he said that as models get more sophisticated, the evidence is becoming more and more conclusive.

“I work with scientists who question the projections of how the models took into account clouds and water vapor,” he said. “New models handle that information better, and still they are saying that if we keep putting carbon dioxide in the air we are probably going to get warmer.”

The information from weather stations – the official NWS station in Colorado Springs is at the airport, but there are unofficial stations throughout the city – doesn’t mean they don’t show warming, he said. Scientists can filter out the bad stations – ones located near air conditioning ducts, parking lots, large buildings – and still collect information.

“If the information from even the bad stations shows that temperature is rising, then we’ll know,” Doesken said. “We’ve embarked on this great scientific experiment: can man affect the global climate? And we’re going to find out. I would like to say no, but I have a funny feeling the answer is yes.”

Runk is quick to note that the National Weather Service is actively examining the faulty weather stations and working to locate them in regions where the environment is not likely to change.

One such plan, called the Weather Reference Network, is placing more than 1,000 weather reporting stations across the nation. There are 20 in Colorado, Doesken said.

“The closest one to Colorado Springs is in the Comanche National Grasslands,” he said. “Back east, they’re locating them in state parks and in other places that are likely to remain free from the kind of development we’ve seen so far.”

The effort isn’t cheap, Runk said, but it is important.

“We know that there are some – certainly not a majority, not as many as they are reporting – that need to be looked at,” he said. “And we’re taking those steps to make sure they will be more accurate.”