Scientists are already claiming 2015 will be the hottest year on record, beating out 2014 which was the hottest year on record by a narrow margin of just 0.04 degrees Celsius.
Such news makes great headlines, but ignores the huge problems with the global temperature record, according to Dr. Richard Keen, meteorologist emeritus at the University of Colorado who is also an official weather station record keeper.
“It’s a very difficult thing to measure,” Keen told “Power Hour” host Alex Epstein, who heads up the Center for Industrial Progress. “The traditional method is to take stations… and then average them around the globe.”
Sounds easy enough, but Keen noted the surface temperature record is riddled with problems ranging from where weather stations are sited to huge gaps in station coverage that force scientists to basically guess at how hot or cold an area was in a given year.
“In Colorado there’s a dozen or more, but out between San Francisco and Hawaii there’s absolutely none and that’s a much bigger area,” Keen said of where official thermometers are located. “The South Atlantic doesn’t have any. Antarctica had none until 1957.”
Indeed, one can travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles between climate monitoring stations around the world. Over the ocean, scientists rely on data collected by ships and buoys — which may also be few and far between.
Overall, weather stations are mostly located near population centers — that’s where people care most about the weather — and there are large gaps in coverage over the ocean and rural parts of the U.S. and the world.
“They are concentrated in places where people live, and if you want to look at climate change you need a long record,” Keen said.
And yet, scientists still use surface temperature records to claim 2014 was the hottest year on record — even though the difference between that year and the next hottest year was well within the margin of error.
“That’s just a fantasy, you can’t measure the average of the planet to that accuracy using surface observations,” Keen said.
But gaps in global thermometer coverage is only the tip of the iceberg, according to Keen, as these weather stations often encounter lots of siting issues and environmental factors that throw off station readings.
Many thermometers, for example, are located in cities and airports, meaning they report temperatures that are much higher than the surrounding area.
“Those places have gone from little farmsteads to big cities, or become airports that are paved with asphalt,” Keen said. “The urban heat island effect can be enormous.”
Government scientists with agencies, like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), collect temperatures from weather stations across the globe and from ships and buoys out at sea and average those together to figure out how much warmer (or cooler) the Earth is than its baseline temperature.
For years, scientists have been grappling with how to take “biases” out of the temperature record that throw off temperature trends. But now these data “adjustments” have come under fire because they always seem to end up making global warming look more extreme than would be indicated by the raw temperature data or data from satellites.
Republican lawmakers and independent science groups have taken it upon themselves to find out if government scientists are correctly adjusting weather station data to correct for issues with climate data.
A huge disagreement over climate data broke out earlier this year when NOAA published new climate data purporting to get rid of a prolonged “hiatus” global warming. The study was heavily criticized and even sparked a congressional investigation into whether or not the findings were motivated by politics or science.
Scientists said the new data was based on flawed adjustments and was out of line with other surface temperature datasets as well as satellite data — which shows significantly less warming than the surface record.
“I’ll claim it’s impossible to come up with a global average that is accurate enough for your purposes of looking for climate change,” Keen said.
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