A Pause for Thought

Rachelle Peterson

On Thursday, Science published a study that cast doubt on the global warming “pause,” the seventeen-year-and-counting period during which no warming has been observed. The “pause,” which none of the climate models predicted, has been among the most hotly debated questions in climate science. Scientists have scrambled to postulate where the missing heat might be hiding. In the Atlantic Ocean? The Pacific? Blocked by pollution from volcanoes?

The new study, written by researchers from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, suggests that the heat isn’t hiding anywhere. It never went missing in the first place, and only appears on paper as an “artifact” of old “data biases” that have skewed the numbers. The authors recount how, in the past, various methods of the taking the earth’s temperature have resulted in flawed depictions of the planet’s climatic trends.

The most accurate way to measure the warmth of sea water, for instance, is to use buoys—though in the past some scientists used readings from boats, which artificially heated the water. Other errors made the temperature appear artificially cold. Some boat hands hauled buckets of sea water over the side of the boat and dropped in a thermister boatside—a process that allowed water to evaporate from the bucket and cool as it was pulled up from the ocean. The cumulative effect of these flaws, the NOAA scientists say, artificially inflated older ocean temperature readings. By comparison, as data collection became more precise, old errors made newer temperatures look cooler. That period of more accurate temperature readings, they suggest, constitutes the “pause.”

The scientists attempt to recalibrate the data and conclude that the earth has consistently warmed about 0.2 degree Fahrenheit each decade since 1950. Thus, according to lead study author Thomas Karl, director of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., “this hiatus or slowdown simply vanishes.”

Careful scrutiny of scientific evidence is the backbone of the scientific method and crucial to developing a clear understanding of climate science and prudent public policy. The National Association of Scholars welcomes fresh examination of the data and encourages scientists to continue to investigate and debate the merits of various theories of how our world operates.

Nevertheless, several of the methods of NOAA’s new analysis of the temperature data have led some to challenge the rigor and methodology of NOAA’s data recalibration.  For instance, NOAA’s adjustment of one dataset does not explain the eight others  (including temperature readings from land surface, ocean surface, lower troposphere, upper troposphere, and more) that do continue to show a slowdown in warming trends. The portions of data with the greatest recalibration are those since 1998 (when the pause is said to begin)—which are, of course, the most recent, thorough, and accurate data. This means that newer, better data has been adjusted to match older, less precise data. 

NOAA’s readjustment technique involved pegging ocean water temperatures to nighttime ocean air temperatures—readings which have their own data quality concerns. Lord Christopher Monckton of Brenchley points out that the results generated by the NOAA study imply the repeal of the laws of thermodynamics.

NOAA’s latest study gives scientists much to consider and examine. Concerns about data quality should inspire in researchers modesty regarding the certitude of their predictions and reticence to draw policy implications too hastily. We recommend that climate scientists collectively pause for thought.

Image: Mountain Photography

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