Words on Weather & Climate, by Craig James

Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist


Climate Data Part 1

It seems as if every time someone digs up anything new about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC), something ugly crawls out. For example, the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency has recently discovered the IPCC incorrectly reported that 55% of that country was below sea level and would be flooded by increasing sea levels. The number should only be 20%.

There have been many other revelations recently about the IPCC, the committee established to inform the world about climate change, but let’s move on to the two really important issues in climate change. Has this past decade been the warmest decade on record and have the global computer models been forecasting way too much warming?

Let’s take a look at how the climate data is obtained and then used to construct this chart from NASA below, which shows global temperatures warming about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. I’ll start first with what is called the United States Historical Climate Network or USHCN. There are currently 1,221 reporting stations in this network with records going back into the late 1800s.

A former television meteorologist by the name of Anthony Watts took on the enormous task of having all USHCN climate reporting stations surveyed to determine if they met the National Weather Service criteria for proper siting. Over 80% of the stations have now been studied and almost 90% of those stations failed to meet that criteria. The survey shows that nine out of every ten stations are likely reporting higher or rising temperatures because they are badly sited on or near tarmacs, next to buildings, on paved driveways and roads, in waste treatment plants, on rooftops, near air conditioner exhausts and more. You can read about the survey and see photos of some of the ridiculous locations of thermometers in this pdf:http://watsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/surfacestationsreport_spring09.pdf. One of my favorite examples is from The University of Arizona showing where the thermometer has recently been placed over pavement in a parking lot. It used to be over grass. Would you think this move might produce higher daytime temperatures? The thermometer shows warming but certainly not from Carbon Dioxide.

This official USHCN weather station is located in the parking lot of the Atmospheric Science Department, University of Arizona, Tucson. Photo by WARREN MEYER


Poor current location of thermometers is just one of many problems. Since records began, most thermometers have been moved several times. In Grand Rapids, the official temperature readings have moved from North Park to several locations downtown, then out to the old airport at Madison and 36th street and finally to the current location at the Gerald R. Ford Airport.

How do you compare the temperatures taken at those various locations to get a true sense of how the climate has changed over time? The reading at any one time at each of those locations will likely be different. If you have a temperature readout on your car, you know that driving from one location to another, especially on a cold, calm, winter night, will give you many different readings.

Even in cases where the thermometer hasn’t moved, what was once a rural area in the late 1800s may have now become urban. This will now produce warmer temperature readings at that thermometer, especially at night, but it is not the result of CO2. This warming from urban crawl is known as the Urban Heat Island effect (UHI) and is noticeable even in small towns to anyone with a car thermometer. Believe it or not, some of the climate databases make no adjustment for UHI. Numerous peer-reviewed studies have found the lack of adequate urban heat island and local land use change adjustment could account for up to half of all apparent warming since 1900.

There are many other problems with temperature readings, including what time of day the maximum and minimum temperature readings were taken and what type of thermometer was used. Each thermometer has its own bias. In the 1980s, a change in thermometers at many locations resulted in over half a degree of warming that wasn’t real.

Another big issue is regular calibration of the thermometer. From what I have been told, a National Weather Service employee does not have to request a thermometer be recalibrated unless it is believed the temperature reading is off by three degrees or more, which is more than double what the supposed change has been since 1880. How can we know to a tenth of a degree how much the earth has warmed when the thermometers can be off by as much as three degrees at times?

This is just the beginning; the US data is the best in the world. Next week I’ll show you how the global data is gathered and then manipulated to produce warming when little or none existed in the raw data. This is important because it is the data used to initialize climate models.

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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