Local Climatologist Challenges NOAA Report

William Angel of NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center checks weather instruments atop the Grove Arcade.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, with headquarters in Asheville, was in the international news recently following allegations by a former climatologist that a high-profile report was released without proper controls and may have lead to incorrect conclusions about global warming.

The June 2015 report, ‘Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus,’ was published six months before the U.N.’s Paris Summit on Climate Change and allegedly designed to influence the outcome. A lead author of the paper, Thomas Karl, was director of National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI) until last year, the National Center for Environmental Information, the NOAA division that produces climate data, and the world’s largest active archive of environmental data.

Previous analyses of global temperature trends during the first decade of the 21st century seemed to indicate that warming had stalled. Specifically, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included a section on a hiatus, or pause, in global warming.

Karl’s study, however, known as the ‘Pause Buster’ report, shows that temperatures did not plateau and that the supposed warming ‘hiatus’ was inaccurate, concluding that warming had continued at a pace similar to that of the last half of the 20th century.

It was the accusations of one former NOAA employee, and his interview with the UK Daily Mail, that started a maelstrom of controversy. The headline from the Daily Mail interview read “world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data.”

The ‘whistleblower,’ Arden resident Dr. John Bates, accused the authors of the report of selecting flawed data, failing to archive the data as required by NOAA, and rushing through the required internal review process to allow the paper to be published before the 2015 Paris Summit on Climate Change.

After the Daily Mail story was published, Bates reported in Scienceinsider that he was concerned his critique would become a talking point for skeptics of climate change.  That seemed to be the case when Texas representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, issued a press release that said, “NOAA senior officials played fast and loose with data in order to meet politically predetermined conclusion on climate change.”

According to Bates’ post on the blog Climate Etc., data on which the paper was based was not properly ‘archived,’ a mandatory requirement meant to ensure that raw data and the software used to process it is accessible to other scientists, so they can verify NOAA results.

Dr. Bates, formerly a lead scientist at NCEI, retired from NOAA at the end of last year after a 40-year career in meteorology and climate science. In 2014 the Obama administration awarded him a special gold medal for his work in setting new standards ‘to produce and preserve climate data records.’

In his blog post, Bates said Karl was responsible for “insisting on decisions and scientific choices that maximized warming and minimized documentation…in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming pause, rushed so that he could time publication to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy.”

While Bates later told the Associated Press, “it’s really a story of not disclosing what you did, not trumped-up data in any way, shape or form,” his blog post and Daily Mail interview reflect a different opinion. In it, Bates said Karl “constantly had his ‘thumb on the scale’ when documenting, making scientific choices and releasing datasets.”

Bates was not part of the Karl study. He told the AP his reasons for ‘blowing the whistle’ were more about infractions of NOAA’s internal protocol than disputing the actual data or scientific findings that global warming is indeed occurring, and there was “no data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious.”

Bates says Karl changed decades-old temperature data collected from ocean-going ships, which generate heat and can skew the readings, to correlate with more modern robot buoys. 

“They had good data from buoys,” Bates told the Daily Mail. “And they threw it out and ‘corrected’ it by using the bad data from ships. You never change good data to agree with bad, but that’s what they did, so as to make it look as if the sea was warmer.”

Despite Bates’ accusations, other independent studies have supported the conclusions reported in the 2015 Karl paper. They include a study published by the University of California at Berkeley which confirmed Karl’s finding. “Not using their data, we get the exact same results, both for the ocean record and for the land,” said lead author Zeke Hausfather.

Pennsylvania State University meteorologist David Titley told the Washington Post that the possible violations of NOAA internal procedures have no bearing on the facts of global warming. 

As to claims that the report was rushed to sway deliberations for the Paris Climate Summit, Andrew Light, a senior member of the U.S. State Department’s climate talks negotiating team in 2015, said talks had been underway for about four years, with proposed reductions in carbon emissions already crafted when the report was published, and that “188 nations were relying on a tremendous amount of research to support their goals of reducing humans’ carbon emissions to slow the warming of the planet.

“I never heard it discussed once, let alone this one NOAA report, discussed in Paris, the run-up to Paris or anything after Paris, so this is really just an incredibly bizarre claim,” Light said.

The acting director of NOAA Communications told the Beacon, “NOAA takes seriously any accusation that its policies and procedures have not been followed.  In the interest of maintaining the highest standards of transparency, accountability, and scientific integrity, we are in the process of engaging independent outside parties to review this matter.  We will release further details as they are finalized.”

John Bates declined to comment on the story.

By Mary Koppenheffer